These days, when most Hollywood types want to get political, they write checks or talk to empty chairs. But back in 1980, makeup artist John Chambers and a special-effects colleague went above and beyond, assisting the CIA to invent a phony film production as a front for a daring hostage rescue in Iran. Declassified after 18 years, “Argo” is the gripping story of how Hollywood helped save the day. White-knuckle tense and less self-congratulatory than it sounds, Ben Affleck’s unexpectedly comedic third feature has the vital elements to delight adult auds, judging by the enthusiastic response to this Oct. 12 release’s Telluride sneak.
Intercutting faux newsreel footage with an energetic widescreen restaging of the Nov. 4, 1979, storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by angry militants, “Argo” gets the pulse racing from the start, conveying the panic foreign service workers felt at the scene. (A brief historical prologue reminds viewers of the CIA-backed coup that put the Shah in power in Iran, and how the Iranians felt justified in their actions after the U.S. offered amnesty to the then-deposed Shah.) While most of the embassy staff scrambled to destroy files, six Americans snuck out a side door and found shelter in the Canadian embassy, where they remained trapped for months.
Halfway across the world, a phone rings and a bearded but otherwise too-relaxed-looking Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) stirs into action. When the U.S. government needs an extractor, Mendez is the man they call, and though he’s never left anyone behind, the obstacles have never been greater than they are in extracting six Americans from revolutionary Iran.
Mendez’ scheme — the agency’s “best bad idea” — involves posing as a film producer scouting a location in Iran. He intends to set up a production office there, and even buys an ad in Variety to establish legitimacy. Then, he flies in alone, aiming to return with the six refugees (technically not hostages, since they weren’t captured like their compatriots, trapped for 444 days in the U.S. Embassy) role-playing as his film crew.
It’s a kooky idea that sounds all the more hilarious every time a new character repeats it, as Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) incredulously do in Hollywood, each surrounded by the kitsch of their trade. Historically speaking, Chambers was the makeup pro who applied Spock’s ears on “Star Trek,” while Siegel is a fictional character based on Chambers’ actual accomplice, effects guru Bob Sidell, who worked on the movie “E.T.” Still, Arkin’s caricature makes for good comedy, as the ex-player takes the CIA meeting before stepping out to collect another lifetime achievement award to add to his already overcrowded mantel.
Terrio delivers a script that crackles with Paddy Chayefsky-like acerbity in parts, and includes plenty of punchy patter. Though Affleck’s charm serves the film’s lighter aspects as a snarky con-man yarn, the star may be the one dubious casting choice in the central drama’s all-around stellar ensemble. Despite the peppering of gray in his hair and beard, Affleck ultimately comes across softer in-character than the script demands: When Mendez quips that extraction operations “are like abortions — you don’t want to need one, but when you do, you don’t want to do it yourself” to a room full of State Dept. officials, it’s a line that takes brass balls to deliver, and the actor lacks the cowboy conviction to sell it.
Much of “Argo” — named for the fake sci-fi production at its core — comes from well-researched fact, meticulously translated into richly textured retro-looking sets by production designer Sharon Seymour, captured with nostalgic ’80s-styled cinematography by d.p. Rodrigo Prieto — the production team’s detailed work underscored by an end-credits slide show (and an interview with former President Jimmy Carter conducted by Affleck) that depicts characters and scenes alongside their real-life counterparts. Still, the script takes its share of liberties to amplify either the tension or the satire, as when Siegel buys the rights to “Argo” (which Chambers already owned) from a rival producer.
For the breath-stopping final act, the film rewrites history so that Iranian intelligence figures out Mendez’s plan at a particularly awkward moment (in fact, the operation had a far quieter denouement). But the change not only makes for a thrilling finale (one that Telluride auds gave a spontaneous ovation), it corrects the uncomfortably xenophobic way every Iranian is shown in the movie, and suggests they were at least as smart as Mendez.
Ultimately, the thrill of “Argo” is in watching how the illusion-making of movies found such an unlikely application on the world political stage, where the stakes were literally life and death. Not only did Mendez have to manufacture the artifice of a nonexistent film, but the American embassy workers were required to become actors overnight, pretending to be film professionals lest they be found out and executed.