Dir. Ben Affleck
(2012, R, 120 minutes)

Argo is the third film by Ben Affleck as a director, and it’s probably his best; Gone Baby Gone was an impressive debut, and The Town was a somewhat disappointing followup. This new film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s a taut, confidently made, straight-ahead thriller. It’s based on a true story, and generating suspense from documented events can be especially tricky – he’s building to an ending already in the history books – but Affleck succeeds.

The film is set during the Iran hostage crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a confluence of events – most of them surrounding America’s political support of Iran’s oppressive Shah, Mohammad Reza – led a group of rebels to storm the American embassy and hold captive the diplomats therein. During the initial siege, Americans escaped and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.

CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) devises a plan for their escape that involves false identities created around the production of a nonexistent sci-fi B-movie called Argo. This requires a visit to Hollywood, where Affleck stages comic scenes that satirize the movie business and provide an absurd contrast against the deadly seriousness of the hostage crisis. There’s a moment of particular amusement, which must be self-aware I think, in which Alan Arkin as a producer explains to Affleck about learning cover identities, “You could teach a rhesus monkey how to direct in a day.”

The film builds gradually to the escape attempt at the Tehran airport. The outcome isn’t a surprise – I hadn’t educated myself about the true story, but had a good sense of the kind of film I was watching – but Affleck nevertheless builds excitement by allowing us to identify with Mendez and the six diplomats. The screenplay by Chris Terrio sets the stage by laying out ahead of time the obstacles they must overcome to reach safety, and as a result we anticipate the upcoming dangers and share the anxiety of the participants as they approach each checkpoint.

There are moments where the film crosscuts with other urgent scenes that show how the survival of the diplomats depends on events and outcomes out of their control. This follows Hitchcock’s “bomb theory,” which explains that it’s better to show the audience an imminent danger unknown to the characters, which more thoroughly involves us in their plight. Here it achieves just that.

Towards the end, the film is a bit overly sentimental, but that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise satisfying political thriller. I’ll also forgive the moment where Affleck briefly leans on the ancient car-that-won’t-start-during-a-getaway plot device. Some movies rely heavily on those kinds of worn-out tricks. In Argo, it’s the exception and not the rule.