Dear Argo,

How compelling can a movie about making a fake movie be? Very.

You are a rare kind of film. You stray from the bombast of the summer blockbusters, and yet don’t delve into the maudlin territory of the usual indie fare either. You’re a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t stoop to the level of acting dismissively toward the intellect of the audience. You feature simple characterization and yet don’t use cheap tricks of sex or violence to keep the viewer motivated. You’re a mature, taut, engaging thriller that does just about everything right and then vanishes from the screen without attempting to make a last ditch effort toward forced meaning – to steal a term from advertising of all kinds, you satisfy the appetite and finish clear.

What does all that mean? I don’t know for certain. I’m not trying to sell you short. In terms of films I have seen lately you stand with Looper and Moonrise Kingdom in terms of films I am dying to see again out of pure joy, and not some greater sense of intellectual obligation. Much like Lawless, you’re a story I know, and yet unlike that film, during our time together I never felt as though my reaction or investment was being hamstrung by foreknowledge of the story.

The Iranian revolution is in full swing, chaos is in the streets as the country calls for the deposed Shah to be put on trial. However he is currently dying of cancer in the United States, who refuses to release him. A mod storms the U.S. embassy and takes hostages, demanding the Shah be released to them for a trial and execution. Six diplomatic workers slip out of a back exit and hide out at the Canadian ambassador’s house. But the guard is looking for them, pressure is mounting, and before long the U.S. decides that they have to get those people to safety.

Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck). He is an expert in extracting people from hostile situations, and it doesn’t take long for him to devise a plan the get the six “houseguests” out of the country – pretend to be a Canadian film crew shooting a science fiction movie. Along with a makeup artist (John Goodman) in Hollywood with whom he has worked before and an old producer (Alan Arkin), Mendez sets to making a believable cover for his operation.

From there you kick into the common elements of a thriller/heist movie – only in this case the items being boosted are Americans from a hostile country. People bring up all the ways a plan won’t work, and the hero figures out workarounds both in planning and in play. The strengths of your story, however, are in the way that Affleck’s subtle direction ratchets the tension to insane levels. He clearly sets up the stakes, the obstacles, and the way things are supposed to happen in order to allow the audience to better understand the way things either are or are not happening as they are supposed to.

All of your actors, from the headlining stars to the bit players at the outskirts of the story, bring their all. The characters are a bit thin, as your focus is more on the story than the personal impact on the players, but they serve their clockwork design in the machinery of your story. They never overact the big moments, and they are distinctive enough in their actions and motivations to stand out against one another.

It’s the rare film nowadays that gets me into the theater twice, but I can’t deny that I’m looking forward to the next time I get a spare moment to spend with you.

Keep the reels turning,

Brian J. Roan

About Brian J. Roan

Brian J. Roan has a B.A. in journalism from the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. He works in the PR industry. Follow him on twitter @BrianJRoan