Rated R for profanity and some violent images.
Already dubbed "a surefire best picture Oscar nominee" by The Hollywood Reporter, "Argo" is an entertaining and intelligent suspense film for grown-ups (and smart teens) inspired by the unlikely true story of the secret rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran in 1980, while 52 of their less-fortunate colleagues were held hostage by Iranian militants in the American embassy.
The movie begins by reviving the Warner Bros. logo of the 1970s. This not only establishes the era, for those old enough to remember the stylish minimalist design that Warner used from 1972 to 1984, but it also suggests, accurately, that "Argo" will be something of a throwback to the politically conscious, sometimes fact-based suspense and espionage films of the 1970s: "The Day of the Jackal," "Three Days of the Condor," even "All the President's Men."
This insistence that plot is as important as physical action is what makes "Argo" a movie for grown-ups, not its sex (there is none) or violence (present more often as a threat then a reality).
Planned by CIA document forger, master of disguise and "exfiltration" specialist Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck, who also directed), the real-life "Mission: Impossible"-style rescue operation dramatized here — not declassified until 1997 — required participants to pose as filmmakers. The title of the recently released nonfiction book by Mendez that covers the same story sums it up: "Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History."
The Hollywood episodes in Chris Terrio's script are witty and filled with winking jokes about the industry, as Mendez recruits a cynical, wisecracking producer (Alan Arkin, playing a fictionalized character) and a "Planet of the Apes" makeup artist (John Goodman, as real-life Oscar-winner John Chambers) as his design team, more or less. The movie professionals help Mendez establish a convincing cover identity as a producer traveling to Iran to scout locations for a proposed "Star Wars" rip-off titled "Argo."
The opening scenes are perhaps the most gripping in the film, as Affleck and his crew (using Turkey as Iran) recreate the scary and chaotic pro-Ayatollah Khomeini 1979 takeover of the embassy, which a prologue, constructed from newsreel footage and vintage photographs, pegs as payback for U.S. support of the tyrannical Shah of Iran, who had fled to America the month before.
While most of the embassy employees were captured, six diplomats (played here by Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan and others) were able to slip away, to be harbored in secret as "house guests" of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber).
The rescue mission is presented as a race against time, as Mendez tries to figure out how to extract the Americans before the Iranians discover them.
At one point, someone questions whether one of the "house guests" will be able to convincingly impersonate a Hollywood director. Retorts Chambers: "You can train a rhesus monkey to be a director ..."
During the low days of "Daredevil" and "Gigli" and "Jersey Girl," such a jibe might have been directed at handsome Ben Affleck for his behind-the-camera aspirations. Although he shared a best original screenplay Oscar with pal and co-star Matt Damon for "Good Will Hunting" (1997), Affleck had become something of a pretty-boy tabloid joke before he reinvented himself as a promising and skilled director with a pair of very fine crime films, "Gone Daddy Gone" (2007) and "The Town" (2010).
The more ambitious "Argo" affirms Affleck's talents and, perhaps, his limitations. The period detail and overall technical credits amaze, but Affleck — who sports a Chuck Norris beard and haircut as Mendez — relies too often on handheld camera to convey intensity, and on crosscutting to generate suspense or "irony."
When the CIA agent reunites with his wife and son, Affleck places a windblown American flag in the background of the shot. We are meant to understand that family is what motivates Mendez to keep America safe, but does the story of "the Most Audacious Rescue in History" require the same appeal to sentiment as, for example, "Hotel Transylvania"?