Ben Affleck’s third film Argo finds the actor-director leaving his comfort zone and excelling, moving on from solid crime thrillers set in his native Boston — 2007’s Gone Baby Gone and 2010’s The Town — to a riveting political thriller which vividly recreates an outrageous and little-known CIA rescue operation that took place behind-the-scenes of the Iranian hostage crisis and was only declassified in 1997. Affleck stars alongside an incredible ensemble cast — including veterans Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman — who deliver fine performances and find humour in the absurdity of the story, while the overall tense tone and dangerous milieu of the film recall the kind of intelligent, claustrophobic thrillers that America used to produce in the 1970s. The recent Benghazi diplomatic tragedy as well as the perilous relationship the U.S. currently has with Iran only serve to heighten the film’s relevance and resonance, and the expertly-crafted Argo is sure to be a strong contender come awards season.
Argo opens with a prologue made up of archival footage and animated storyboards, which succinctly educate us on the events leading up to the overthrow of the U.S.-supported authoritarian Shah in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, as the country transitions to an Islamic republic and instates the Ayatollah Khomeini. We are then suddenly right in the midst of the chaos as enraged Iranian protestors surge the American embassy in Tehran and its staff desperately attempt to shred sensitive documents. The embassy is overrun and 52 hostages are taken in response to America’s refusal to extradite the ailing Shah to his home country to stand trial, and the infamous crisis would last over 400 days.
What the Iranians don’t know, however, is that six American diplomats — played by Scoot McNairy, Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé – secretly managed to escape and are taking refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (the perennially calm Victor Garber). The nervous State Department and CIA are at a loss as to how they can get the diplomats out without risking the hostages, so with the clock ticking on their lives exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (a restrained, bearded Ben Affleck) is brought in by his CIA senior Jack O’Donnell (the omnipresent Bryan Cranston) to assist. Mendez hatches a cover story so ridiculous it just might work: the six escapees and himself will pose as a Canadian film crew making a Star Wars-esque sci-fi adventure who are visiting Iran under the pretense of scouting for exotic desert locations. The brass reluctantly agree that it’s their “best bad idea”, and they surprisingly give “Argo” — an actual unproduced screenplay — the green light, sending Mendez off to Hollywood to meet with his make-up artist pal John Chambers (a real-life Oscar-winner, wonderfully portrayed by John Goodman) and cynical B-movie producer Lester Siegel (a hilariously deadpan Alan Arkin), who insists that if he’s gonna make a fake movie, “it’s gonna be a fake hit” (among many more quotable lines).
Working from a terrific script by Chris Terrio (Heights) — based on Mendez’s book The Master of Disguise and Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 Wired article The Great Escape — Affleck’s film nimbly shifts between the tense, claustrophic and life-threatening conditions in Iran and the frequently hilarious and snappy dialogues in Hollywood as “Argo” is hastily legitimized. After opening with Warner Bros’ 1970s logo, Argo evinces remarkable attention to period detail throughout, including the amusingly awful costumes and hairstyles, clever use of TV news clips, and multiple pop culture touchstones of the era (Star Wars, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen, to name a few). The massive cast — of whom I haven’t even gotten around to mentioning Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Michael Parks, Richard Kind and Adrienne Barbeau (!) — could similarly overwhelm a lesser film, but each impressive character actor serves the complex story well. Affleck wisely chooses to tone down his charisma and adds just a touch of melancholy and alcoholism to his estranged husband/father, recognising that the extraordinary story is the real star here. Once Mendez finds himself in the dangerous streets of Tehran and preparations begin for the terrified and beleaguered diplomats’ daring escape, the dramatic tension is built up masterfully as Argo heads toward a suspenseful — if a tad predictable and Hollywood-ised — and undeniably exhilarating final act that will have audiences cheering.
Affleck’s film evokes such anxious ’70s political-thrillers as Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men and Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon — not to mention Michael Mann’s similarly efficient The Insider — and while Argo may fall a little short of those landmarks, it remains an impressive piece of filmmaking which occupies that desired position between thoughtful adult fare and entertaining Hollywood thrills. I’ve been impressed with how Affleck continues to challenge himself and evolve as a filmmaker — The Town represented an improvement on the already pretty great Gone Baby Gone — and here he makes a big leap into the realm of top-tier Hollywood directors with his most fully-realised and consistent work yet. With the aid of some incredible, awards-worthy talent — including cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Babel, Brokeback Mountain), editor Willam Goldenberg, composer Alexandre Desplat (Moonrise Kingdom, The Tree of Life), and the enormously skilled cast (particularly Arkin, Goodman and McNairy) — Affleck has delivered an ambitious, nail-biting, intelligent and admirably even-handed account of an extraordinary true story that feels urgent, relevant and ultimately triumphant. Be sure to stay for the credits which features an insightful voice-over from then-President of the United States Jimmy Carter.
Argo is out today in New Zealand cinemas, and you can win tickets here. Watch the trailer below.