Argo, a bang-up political thriller about the stranger-than-fiction true story of the rescue of the six Americans taken hostage by Iranian political extremists in the last days of 1979, is a small miracle of a film: it’s an example of how exciting a thriller can be when it’s told straight-forwardly and with levity. Unlike the bloated, two-and-a-half-hours-plus action epics that have lately become the norm, Argo is lean, swift, and funny. It benefits from a smart screenplay by Chris Terrio and direction by Ben Affleck that’s workmanlike and unfussy. He may not have the makings of a visionary filmmaker, but at least he doesn’t make us suffer by pretending to be one. Hopefully, the success of this film—and it promises to be very successful—won’t go to his head and cause him to start making heavier, more self-important fare, as has been the case in the careers of such talented but self-indulgent directors as Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson, for example. Affleck’s talent (I say this having seen none of his other directorial efforts) seems to lie in his brisk, no-nonsense approach to material that’s solid enough that it doesn’t need a lot of elaborate scaffolding. You don’t feel him straining for greatness, nor do the big emotional moments in the film feel belabored. It’s effortlessly good.
It’s also built around a riveting and weird story, one that vaguely recalls the outrageous premise of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) but that is all the more bizarre for having actually happened. (CIA operatives succeeded in smuggling the American hostages out of the country by having them pass as crew members shooting a non-existent Hollywood space opera on location in Iran.) Like Tarantino’s film (albeit in less sinuous and profound ways), it suggests that cinematic fantasy is powerful enough to alter the course of world history. In one of Argo’s funniest moments, the hostages are forced to pitch their fake film, the plot of which is that of countless B-list Star Wars rip-offs, to the airport security guards who stand in the way of their escape, and we’re made to reflect on the seemingly universal appeal of even the shallowest of movie pleasures.
At the risk of sounding dismissive, I would say that Argo itself indulges in shallow pleasures: its climactic sequence is, essentially, a nerve-jangling chase scene, with cross-cutting techniques that go back to the era of D. W. Griffith (there even seems to be a visual nod to the race between the car and the train in Intolerance, as a fleet of speeding trucks tries to chase down an airplane about to take off). Argo’s saving grace is that it delivers these pleasures with such panache that we don’t mind their being familiar. It’s not the stuff of ground-breaking cinema, but it’s sure to be one of the most purely entertaining films of the year.