Argo, Ben Affleck's electrically suspenseful, cunningly original true-life thriller, is the rare movie that has great fun while touching a raw political nerve. It's set in 1979 and 1980, during the early months of the Iran hostage crisis, and it centers on six American officials who flee the U.S. embassy and take secret refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The CIA decides that they can't stay there that if the Iranian revolutionaries discover there are Americans in hiding, the whole lot of them, along with the ambassador, will be executed in the streets. They need to escape the country. But how? Tony Mendez, a CIA operative played by Affleck with a beard and shaggy '70s hair, has a nutty/ingenious/out-of-the-box idea: The six will pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a cheesy pulp sci-fi movie called Argo (named for the planet on which it's set). With their fake identities established, they will be able to walk the streets, then fly to Switzerland, right under the noses of the Revolutionary Guard.
Argo makes this far-fetched story feel every bit as real, and intense, as it was. The movie opens on Nov. 4, 1979 a day that shook the world with images of furious Iranian citizens pushing up against the gates of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. It's fascinating to be reminded that the taking of the American hostages wasn't a planned event so much as an improvised, up-from-the-streets eruption against the yoke of U.S. imperialism. We see the protesters churning to a slow boil outside (a prologue sketches in the vital history of why they were so angry), and then what's going on behind the walls of the embassy: a great deal of feverish document-shredding, but also a scary awareness on the Americans' part that the cavalry isn't going to save them this time. They're on their own.
This is the kind of filmmaking that elevates suspense to a perception of how a single frothing spasm of confrontation changed the relationship between America and the increasingly radicalized Muslim world. Having proved, with The Town (2010), that he's a crackerjack director, Affleck now ups his game, applying a wizardly finesse to one of the darkest chapters of recent American history. More than three decades after the fact, he lets you touch these tensions, and one reason the live wire still shocks is that the tensions haven't gone away. That said, Affleck knows all too well that in the years after 9/11, Hollywood movies that have taken on the topical, the relevant, often wind up generating little heat at the box office and causing barely a ripple in the culture. Argo has the chance to cause a major ripple, because Affleck transforms its stranger-than-fiction hook into mainstream thriller poetry.
To pull off the escape, the Americans can't just say that they're a cinematographer, an assistant producer, and so on. Argo, the picture they're pretending to work on, has to be as genuine as possible, with logistical links to the actual world. Mendez heads out to Hollywood, where everyone is trying to come up with the next Star Wars, and he helps set up Argo as a ''science fantasy adventure,'' complete with full-page ads in the trade newspapers and a low-rent schmuck of a producer played by Alan Arkin, who is priceless barking out prickly-pear lines like ''If I'm doing a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit!'' At times, the comedy of the situation the way that, say, everyone starts to use the catchphrase ''Argo f--- yourself!'' can make you think you're watching Ocean's Eleven crossed with Munich. Yet what's sensational about Argo is the way that the caper movie and the dread-fueled plunge into the tinderbox of American-Iranian tensions only reinforce and heighten each other. The film has an explosive '70s vibe: Even when you're laughing (mostly out of uneasiness), the stakes couldn't be higher.
As Mendez, Affleck musters a scruffy sympathy, and a stubborn belief in his so-loopy-it-just-might-work plan. Bryan Cranston, as his CIA boss back at Langley, uses his hypercontrolled fury to heroic effect, and there's a great, simmering piece of acting by Farshad Farahat as a Revolutionary Guard at the airport. We're rooting for the Americans, but Farahat lets you see the Iranian view from the inside the mistrust of the U.S. that has metastasized over decades. Argo is never less than wildly entertaining, but a major part of its power is that it so ominously captures the kickoff to the world we're in now. A