Hollywood fantasy takes on Iranian reality in Ben Affleck's Argo

CIA spies and movie moguls outwit militant mullahs in compelling docudrama

Hollywood loves to tell grand, tragic stories with happy endings, and frequently pores over history books for material: Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List examines the Holocaust from the vantage point of Jews who survived it; Oliver Stone's World Trade Center focuses on two police officers rescued from the Twin Towers' rubble after the Sept. 11 attacks, and so on.

The suspenseful docudrama Argo uncovers a triumph in the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981, when Islamic fundamentalists seized more than 50 U.S. diplomats in Tehran, leading to 444 days of international humiliation and outrage. In a historical footnote, six Americans fled the embassy during the takeover and found refuge at the Canadian ambassador's home until a CIA agent implemented an outlandish plan to get them out.

As Argo's star and director, Ben Affleck cements his reputation as a capable filmmaker, although his compelling political thriller doesn't take full advantage of its thematic implications.

Argo begins with a recap of Iranian history rendered through a mix of old newsreels and storyboard illustrations that lead up to the Iranian Revolution against the despotic Shah, to whom the U.S. grants asylum. Outraged protesters storm the American embassy in a nail-biting sequence that crosscuts between the raging mob and diplomats rushing to burn classified documents. Like the season premiere of "Homeland," Argo unconsciously echoes the recent attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya.

Two months later, the CIA coordinates with the State Department to figure out how to secure safe passage for the six Americans nicknamed "the houseguests." At a brainstorming meeting, experienced technical operations officer Tony Mendez (Affleck) shoots down ideas to spirit the houseguests away in disguise as teachers or bicyclists. Tony has his "Eureka!" moment one night while watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV: The diplomats can pose as filmmakers leaving Iran after scouting exotic locations. While reasonable Westerners are fleeing Iran, the idea that decadent Hollywood people would visit feeds Iranian stereotypes about Americans.

Tony flies to Los Angeles to team with a special effects expert (John Goodman) and a veteran producer (Alan Arkin) in order to engineer a nonexistent film production that will nonetheless stand up to public scrutiny. Less than two years after Star Wars' success, they go for a lousy-sounding sci-fi knock-off called Argo (presumably named for the ship of Jason and the Argonauts). Affleck the director awkwardly pivots from the rest of the film's gritty realism to light-hearted showbiz satire. Rock songs like "Sultans of Swing" play ironically on the soundtrack, while Goodman and Arkin make knowing quips like, "If I'm going to make a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit."

To give Argo real-world credence, the CIA-financed production company arranges a publicity stunt involving actors in robot, alien, and space-babe costumes reading the script at a swank hotel. In the film's weirdest touch, Affleck intercuts between the artists in their Dragon*Con outfits and the plight of the embassy hostages in Tehran, where their captors subject them to psychological torture.

Argo subtly sets up a conflict between the storytelling artifice of the movie industry and the political ideology of Iran's ruling fundamentalists, which further hits at the tension between world religious values and the rampant sex, violence, and consumerism in America's movie exports. There's a world of difference between Iran's modestly dressed, awkward Muslim spokeswomen and the scantily clad starlets on Argo's poster. Although Argo touches on themes rich enough for a Don DeLillo novel, Affleck instead focuses on the nuts and bolts of Mendez's mission.

As a procedural story, Argo conveys the bureaucratic red tape, secret police surveillance tactics, and nerve-racking tries by the hostages to go out undiscovered amid a hostile public. The attempts at characterization prove perfunctory — Mendez is estranged from his wife but misses his son, the houseguests have minor defining traits — but the excellent ensemble includes Bryan Cranston, Titus Welliver, and Scoot McNairy as the most jittery diplomat.

Appropriately, Argo's cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto captures the grainy, naturalistic look of 1970s docu-thrillers like All the President's Men or Serpico. Overall, Argo recounts such a crackling escape tale that it will inspire people to compare the screen story with the historical record. Did the actual mission involve so many close calls and twists of fate? The film industry seldom lets facts get in the way of a good story.