The career rehabilitation of Ben Affleck continues to gather momentum with Argo, the Good Will Hunting and Armageddon star’s third film as director and the best evidence yet that he’s truly a filmmaker of integrity and intelligence.
Deftly balancing drama, humour and white-knuckle tension, Argo is engrossing from beginning to end, with Affleck (doing double duty as director and leading man) and screenwriter Chris Terrio taking a top-secret incident from the annals of recent American history and spinning it into a marvellous stranger-than-fiction yarn.
And even if the film does take a little dramatic licence at times, it’s all in the service of a thoroughly captivating story.
A brief introduction outlines the turbulent history of Iran, particularly its fraught and complex relationship with the West, before plunging head-first into the 1979 takeover of Tehran’s US embassy by a revolutionary faction.
Most of the embassy’s staff were held hostage but six managed to sneak out and find sanctuary in the home of the Canadian ambassador.
With door-to-door searches being conducted, and an unpleasant fate all but guaranteed for the escapees and those harbouring them, the American government goes into crisis mode.
Every idea to extract the six from Iran has its flaws until CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) hatches “the best bad idea we’ve got” – posing as a movie producer scouting exotic locations for a science-fiction epic (the ‘Argo’ of the title), he’ll smuggle out the embassy staffers by presenting them as a film crew.
It’s risky on any number of levels – it needs the cooperation of Washington and Hollywood and requires the tired, stressed escapees to memorise elaborate cover stories on short notice – but it’s the only chance they have of making it out alive.
There’s no two ways about it, Argo is riveting stuff. And it would work terribly well as a straight-up espionage thriller.
But not only does Affleck show supreme confidence and capability in depicting these aspects of the story, his no-nonsense style reminiscent of top ‘70s craftsmen like Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet, he also weaves dry, winning humour and layers of smart subtext into the piece without breaking a sweat.
Credit must also go to a terrific cast, with John Goodman and Alan Arkin particular standouts – the ever-reliable pair savouring their roles as the whip-smart and wryly funny Hollywood branch of the operation.