Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston. Written by Chris Terrio. Directed by Ben Affleck. 14A. 120 min. Opens Oct. 12.
The weirdest true-life detail in Ben Affleck’s new thriller is not the fact that the CIA used a bogus Canadian science-fiction movie as a means to secretly spirit six American embassy workers out of revolution-era Tehran. It’s that the phony production’s storyboard images of desert-planet derring-do are suggestive of a covert scheme to undermine the Ayatollah’s new regime with an early incarnation of John Carter.
Alas, there was never a real intention to shoot the science-fiction epic from which Argo borrows its name. It existed only as part of the far-fetched but surprisingly effective plan that was hatched by Tony Mendez, the CIA “exfiltration” expert who faced stiff opposition not only from Iranian revolutionaries but skeptics among his higher-ups. Convincingly played here by a bearded Affleck—doing double duty behind the camera for his third and most confident outing as director—Mendez provides the film with a sturdy centre and a compelling momentum. That’s true whether he’s in Tehran with the embassy workers who’ve been harboured by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), at the Pentagon with his hot-tempered boss (Bryan Cranston), or visiting Hollywood to lend credence to the cover story with the help of colourful film-biz folk played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin.
The result is a remarkably fleet-footed thriller that’s only marred by Affleck’s often unnecessary attempts to ratchet up the tension. Such moments threaten to spoil his movie’s grubby, naturalistic feel with a whiff of old-fashioned hokum. Nevertheless, Argo does ample justice to one of the strangest chapters in America’s tumultuous history with Iran.