For “Argo,’’ Ben Affleck wears a dark beard that’s cut short but covers a lot of ground. He’s also grown out and conditioned his hair. It has body now. The movie finds a fresh angle into the Iran hostage crisis, which began in 1979 and lasted more than a year. That’s the right era for Affleck’s style. The beard looks like it placed third in a Son of Serpico contest. The hair could have come in second on Warren Beatty Night at the skate palace.
Setting aside intent, this doesn’t feel entirely accidental. Affleck plays a gentleman named Tony Mendez, a CIA operative with a specialty in hostage extraction. But any evocation of Beatty makes sense. Affleck directed “Argo,’’ and after a couple of Boston-steeped crime thrillers — “Gone Baby Gone’’ and “The Town’’ — his ambition for the thriller has gone international, it’s gone important, but, crucially, not self-important.
Affleck is the first actor since Beatty’s generation of stars to make a persuasive case for himself as an honest-to-goodness Hollywood filmmaker. He applies lightness but not too much. He’s serious but innocent of the pomposity that comes out of certain kinds of seriousness. If Affleck is trying to prove anything with this movie it’s that he’s egoless, empty of himself. He’s not making “Lions for Lambs.’’ He’s not, father forgive me, making “The Prince of Tides.’’ At least, he isn’t lighting himself that way.
“Argo’’ is set mostly in 1979 and 1980 Tehran, during the crisis, and focuses on the six US Embassy employees — played by Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, and Kerry Bishé — who spent three months hiding out at the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) and his wife (Page Leong), after Islamists overtook the embassy and held 52 Americans for over a year, demanding the US government return the overthrown Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, for trial (he died in Egypt in 1980). For Washington, the employees’ escape created a secret headache separate from the wider hostage situation itself. How to get these six out of Iran without getting them, the Canadians, or the 52 other Americans killed?
The film bolts between the CIA and Tehran until Mendez comes up with a solution. His plan for a clean exit out of Tehran involves a bogus film production, for which the embassy workers will pretend to be members of the crew, in town to scout shooting locations. The Washington scenes are full of the sort of actors you’d expect to find under these bureaucratic circumstances — Bryan Cranston, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver — men who look good power-walking down hallways or asserting their skepticism at desks and conference tables, men who would have been bigger stars in the decades in which this movie’s set. Mendez receives the proverbial green light, flies to Los Angeles, and, with the help of a chummy makeup artist (John Goodman) and a producer — the crusty, bitter sort that only Alan Arkin can play — concocts an entire fake production. It’s a work of would-be sci-fi called “Argo,’’ and had it ever gone into production it might have starred Michael Ontkean or Harry Hamlin. Something like this actually happened. The Canadian government helped out with fake passports and was required, for reasons of diplomacy, to take credit for the whole thing. Poor Jimmy Carter couldn’t brag about it at all during his reelection campaign.
The only possible reason that Sydney Pollack or Alan J. Pakula, at the height of his powers, didn’t wind up making this movie is that the details of the mission weren’t known until President Clinton declassified the case, in 1997. The hand-held camerawork and zoom shots, the shiny comb-overs, the mustaches and tight vests, the avalanche of very good character actors: Whatever you wear to this movie will invariably wind up feeling like polyester. “The Town’’ made it evident that Affleck knows what to do with a thriller. “Argo’’ is absurdly suspenseful for both of its hours. I’ve never been this stressed-out watching people shred documents. The opening scenes are especially strong. They convey the most stirring indication of what Affleck can do with mood, atmosphere, and tension. There’s a lot of stock news footage and big crowd demonstrations that are almost indistinguishable from the real stuff. You can feel hell about to break loose as the students surround the embassy, then besiege it. Affleck is democratic in his shot selection, too. Both sides — the seething Iranians and the terrified Americans — get close-ups.
What you feel in the opening 20 minutes is a kind of “Battle of Algiers’’-style docudrama that meets up with political events that have happened as recently as last month with the sieges and protests at American embassies around the Muslim world. These scenes feel fresh and tense and raw. Affleck keeps everything happening and makes you feel that anything could happen. I imagine no studio would back a whole movie of this. Chris Terrio wrote the script, which really doesn’t kick in until after these scenes. The caper it conjures might feature unthinkable political risk, but as moviemaking it’s safe. We’ve seen “so crazy it just might work’’ before. Affleck makes it entertaining. You understand why we’re getting the caper story — it’s exciting! It’s fun! It’s declassified! Yet the early scenes are where you feel Affleck pushing against his comfort.
As an actor, he’s torn, too. The comic-book jawline is Affleck’s, but covering it with Mendez’s hair advertises an aversion to vanity. You sense that Affleck is acting in his movies lest he forget how to do it. He spent so many years being pilloried in the press that I think he’s afraid of not being liked at the movies. He now takes his likability even more seriously than Robert Redford, the only other actor on earth who would cast himself as a bullying, bank-robbing thug who evolves into the male half of a Nora Ephron movie. That’s what Affleck did in “The Town.’’ Even with his charisma dialed all the way down, as it is here, he’s still a movie star. I just wish he would stop being sorry about it.
As a director, Pollack and Pakula are pretty much where Affleck is as a director: a smart, talented classicist who’s good with actors and the rhythms of storytelling; someone who makes Hollywood entertainment look criminally easy. He’s more the 21st-century version of those two than the second coming of Beatty or Redford. I don’t know that Affleck would want to do something like Pakula’s “Klute,’’ “All the President’s Men,’’ or “The Parallax View’’; or Pollack’s “Tootsie’’ or, heaven help us, “Out of Africa.’’ But he’s barely 40. There’s time. “Argo’’ suggests that, in the future, he might have something more currently topical to say, the way Pakula did. My only problem with the movie is that, after those opening scenes, it loses its nerve. Despite all the suspense the movie generates and how much fun it is to watch and listen to, it’s safer than something about the Iranian hostage crisis should be. For now, he’s Pakula without the paranoia.