Probably one of the Jimmy Carter-iest facts about the Carter administration was that the boldest foreign policy actions to take place under Carter's command remained top secret for two decades. The CIA plot relayed in Argo is exactly the kind of dramatic, high-risk action that nobody on earth would attribute to the Carter White House, and it's such a crazy plan that it seems tailor-made for a prestigious Hollywood adaptation. The biggest surprise is that it took another decade and a half after Bill Clinton finally declassified the operation for someone to turn it into a movie.
During the Iranian revolution of 1979, six Americans are hiding out in the Canadian embassy. Even as the Iranian government—and the bloodthirsty mobs roaming the streets of Tehran—close in on the Americans, a CIA agent named Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, peering out from a thatch of late-'70s hair that swallows his whole head) hatches a risky rescue plan. With the help of Hollywood producers, Mendez would disguise himself as a Canadian filmmaker scouting Iranian locations for his new movie, a Middle Eastern Star Wars knockoff called Argo. Mendez would then provide the Americans with cover identities as a Canadian film crew and smuggle them out of the country, slipping through multiple layers of unpredictable, heavily armed, American-hating security teams. It's essentially a heist film that makes your standard safecracking thriller look like smashing a piggy bank.
Affleck has assembled a team of actors who more than live up to the challenges of the story. As a special-effects makeup artist and a jaded producer, John Goodman and Alan Arkin invest their few scenes with the kind of humor and lightness that elevates the entire movie; because we laugh with the two old hands who have immunized themselves to Hollywood glitz, the Iranian sequences seem that much more perilous. In the thankless supporting role—his CIA executive provides the exposition and performs the operational actions that require him to say things like "Damn it!" while talking on the phone with Affleck—Bryan Cranston delivers leading-man levels of intensity. If you attend movies with any regularity, you'll recognize almost all of the actors who play the six American hostages, but to a person, they exceed their anonymous 'whatsername' pedigrees here.
Even Affleck, the weakest link in the ensemble, acquits himself admirably. A stronger actor would guide the ensemble with a deeper, more nuanced performance, but Affleck is content to show up and say the lines, allowing everyone else to steal the scenes and perform the heavy emotional lifting.
Acting is not the only discipline where Affleck floats along on a cloud composed of the talent of others. Argo is unquestionably a success, but it must be said that Affleck is not now, and will probably never be, a brilliant director. He's lucky to be a competent director in a time in which too many directors are starving for competence. Argo lacks a certain visual verve that good espionage thrillers need. An excellent spy film of any pedigree—one of the best James Bond movies, for example, or last year's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—succeeds based on a sharp visual sense that mimics the acuity and awareness of a spy.
And Argo suffers from a few too many examples of the same kind of thrill. Affleck, it seems, only knows how to build tension in one very particular way. His movie ends with the same narrow escape scene repeated over and over, bringing the whole story to a desensitized anticlimax. But those flaws don't destroy the craftsmanship behind Argo. Affleck summons a late-'70s-style thriller with an adult sense of pacing and a sharp, funny script. His competence can't prevent the rest of Argo's outright excellence from shining through.