The big story was a disaster: the storming of the U.S. Embassy by supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1979, and the 444-day captivity endured by 52 American hostages.
There was also a smaller story, and it was a weird sort of triumph. Six American officials slipped out of the embassy as it was being overwhelmed by protesters and hid in the home of the Canadian ambassador in Tehran.
Canadian authorities and the CIA concocted a harebrained scheme to get them safely out of Iran.
The tale is so unlikely it would make an awesome movie, and it has. “Argo,” directed by and starring Ben Affleck, is a terrifically entertaining and suspenseful account of the Canadian Caper.
Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a real-life CIA specialist in extricating people out of difficult situations. Mendez’s idea for a cover story is claiming the six Americans are members of a Canadian film crew, scouting locations in Iran for a supposed cheapjack sci-fi picture called “Argo.” With fake passports, he’ll travel to Iran and try to get them out.
His adventures in Hollywood — for the cover story to work, there really did need to be a script in production — play off against the scenes of the hostages sweating out the passing weeks.
It all builds to a satisfyingly tense escape, which is undoubtedly hyped a little into “Mission: Impossible” territory. But that doesn’t wreck the overall tone, which is calm and low-key.
There’s only one note that Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio miss, which is the humor within this dramatic story.
We do get a measure of Hollywood satire involving John Goodman and Alan Arkin as, respectively, a veteran make-up man and producer who help set up the ruse, but there’s a whole layer of comedy not quite happening; this is a movie made by someone who wants to prove his seriousness.
Nevertheless, you can see Affleck’s pleasure at tweaking the absurdities of his profession. His own performance is grim. He plays Mendez as someone who’s spent a lifetime not tipping his hand about anything. (The beard and haircut are excellent 1970s re-creations, by the way.)
Meanwhile, at the CIA, Bryan Cranston plays an agency honcho, while the rest of the cast is filled out with character actors; the film has a crisp, non-starry approach. Get the job done and get out, just like the mission itself.
“Argo” is a nice demonstration of that brand of no-nonsense professionalism. You probably know how the story comes out, but simply by applying the rules of suspense, the film has you leaning forward in your seat anyway.
This is Affleck’s third film as director (after “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”), and he’s quietly proving that every once in a while, they still make ‘em like they used to.
“Argo” (3½ stars)
A real-life sidebar story to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis (six Americans were hiding out and a rescue mission launched) becomes a very satisfying exercise in suspense, thanks to director-star Ben Affleck. The cover story involves a fake movie production, which allows Affleck some jibes at his profession but otherwise it’s a serious tale well told.
Rated: R for language, violence.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Edmonds, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Meridian, Seven Gables, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade.