The prevailing feeling I have about Argo is that it is first and foremost a very exciting movie. There are elements of a caper throughout the first half intertwined with political intrigue before it becomes a full-blown thriller for its last act. Argo is part dramatized history, but there is a political tension that floats around the events of the film and thus actually makes the film better for it.
Disregarding my personal feelings about the quality of said films, if one looks at the Middle Eastern/American dynamic in American films post-9/11, these stories did have trouble finding an immediate audience with examples being thrillers such as The Kingdom or Rendition. Instead, films would couple that said tension with other storylines such as the mulit-tiered oil conspiracy in Syriana or having a story take place on the homefront like In the Valley of Elah (not the most direct example, but it certainly deals with American identity post-9/11). The most notable film would be the apolitical soldier's story in The Hurt Locker, a film that I felt was also highly noted for how thrilling and suspenseful it was first before how it dealt with miltiary politics second.
In any case, the true-story of Argo begins with the taking of hostages at the American embassy in Iran in 1979 and it follows CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, also the film's director) as he comes up with an unique plan to extract six Americans who escaped the embassy seige and are hiding at the Canadian ambassador's house. The scheme involves heading into Iran as a Hollywood agent intent to film a science-fiction project that needs a desert landscape. Mendez would enter the country by himself and leave with the hostages as part of his film crew.
This fake movie, entitled "Argo", must seem as real as possible. Mendez joins with make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a fully functioning film studio office and have artwork comissioned and auditions taking place as to appear that "Argo" is an actual film that will be in a theater near you. As Mendez's colleagues point out, if this mission fails then the CIA and America will be viewed as a joke at best and at worst lives will be put at risk and prisoners executed. The hostages themselves (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, and Rory Cochrane) are growing worried and nervous and when Mendez arrives, they are unsure if they'll be able to escape the country.
Chris Terrio's script raises the stakes, blending suspense with stranger-than-fiction aspects for a film that manages to proceed in a relatively realistic fashion. The film knows when to enjoy itself and have the audience laugh, but also when to have you concerned that its heroes might fail. Affleck has assembled a talented cast, but it's his continuing growth as a director that is most notable here. He understands how to control what could've been a difficult movie for others. Examples include the scenes where the turmoil of the hostages is intercut with a table read of the script or how when Joe Stafford has to explain to the Iranaian official at the airport about the elements of the film that Stafford himself had trouble memorizing and remaining convinced.
Affleck's work on the film is thoughtful in how he found the perfect balance for a number of elements. The film is almost deceptively finely tuned, a quality that Mendez and his co-workers would be appreciative of.