With Argo, Ben Affleck is working with a bigger scale than ever as a director — and he's delivered his best film to date. Affleck has proven his skills behind the camera with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, dark tales set in his beloved Boston, but Argo feels far away from those — and not just geographically. Though the story is based on a well-known historical crisis, the tone is a balance of serious and lighthearted, and everything from the scope (the film moves around from Iran to Washington DC to LA) to the huge cast demands more from Affleck. He succeeds, and the film's triumph marks Affleck's maturity as a director.
Based on a true story, Argo tells the tale of how CIA specialist Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) devises an unusual strategy for extracting American hostages from Iran in 1979. After an attack on the US embassy in Tehran, six workers (including Tate Donovan and Clea DuVall) are forced to flee and hide out in the Canadian ambassador's home. Faced with no other good ideas, Mendez turns to the film industry, using two Hollywood insiders (John Goodman and Alan Arkin) to help him create buzz for a fake movie (called Argo) and pretend that the hostages are actually working on the film so he can get them out of Iran. It's a premise that sounds almost too outlandish to be true, but true it is, and the real-life facts are skillfully woven into a heart-pounding drama. To find out what else I thought of Argo, just keep reading.
Affleck's performance as Mendez is strong, but he's not hogging the spotlight; it's the strength of the entire ensemble that carries the movie. Bryan Cranston is fantastic as usual as a fellow CIA agent helping Mendez from DC, while the performances of the six hostages command your sympathy. They're wary of the plan for good reason, and though you root for them to follow Mendez implicitly, the actors who play the hostages express their fear convincingly (particularly Scoot McNairy). Inciting a different reaction is Arkin, whose scene-stealing role as a Hollywood producer is hilarious and the source of much of Argo's artfully blended humor.
That humor is just one of the successes of the script, which makes the political subject matter engaging and easy to follow. Most of the humor comes from Mendez's scenes in Hollywood, which poke a lot of fun at the entertainment industry — it's Affleck's wink to the audience. However, that levity isn't the only thing that makes the movie absorbing; the sequences where the hostages' lives are at stake are intense and gripping whether you're familiar with the outcome of the event or not.
The fact that Affleck spins such an entertaining story out of a historical footnote (Mendez's involvement in the rescue was classified by the CIA until 1997) is another credit to his talent. He handles the true tale like the best kind of teacher: you're so invested that you hardly realize you've learned something.