After establishing himself as a formidable talent behind the camera with his two Boston-set crime dramas Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Ben Affleck’s third feature as director sees him step out of that comfort zone and broaden his scope considerably. Leaving Boston behind, Argo is an intelligent and gripping political thriller that juggles a large ensemble spread across the CIA, Hollywood and Iran.
Set in 1979, Argo tells the ‘declassified true story’ of the hostage crisis that occurred when local revolutionaries took control of the US embassy in Tehran. Six hostages escaped and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, leaving it up to CIA ‘exfiltrator’ Tony Mendez (Affleck) to orchestrate their escape from the country.
But how does Mendez plan to get the hostages out? Well, that’s where the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ phrase comes to mind. Mendez plans to supply the hostages with fake identities and convince the new authorities that they are in fact a Canadian film crew on a location scout for an upcoming Star Wars-esque sci-fi epic named Argo.
To make this convincing, Mendez has to make everyone believe that Argo is a real movie which is where the film enters the land of Hollywood satire as he enlists the help of veteran movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to make this as convincing a fake picture as possible. Arkin and Goodman make a great comedy double act and the Tinseltown sections of the film are generally the funniest in the movie, adding some levity to a story where six people’s lives are on the line.
Affleck is successful in balancing the humour and industry satire with scenes of All the President’s Men-style drama in DC and the gritty, sweaty-palmed thrills surrounding the hostages in Tehran. He also adeptly juggles a huge ensemble cast of some of the best supporting players currently working with Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Scoot McNairy providing the highlights in the Hollywood, CIA and hostage scenes respectively. If there’s a weak link in the cast, it’s Affleck himself providing a steady but slightly bland leading performance.
Affleck also takes a couple of shaky steps with the narrative, particularly in an unnecessary subplot involving Mendez’ son which serves only to slow down the film and the Iranians are largely seen only as screaming mobs. It’s hard to blame Affleck for the latter though; this is already a dense film and sufficiently fleshing out the other side would be a huge stretch.
However, these are small quibbles with a film that works very well on numerous different levels, smoothly intertwining comedy-caper elements and political thrills with lashings of style and verve. Perhaps Affleck’s biggest triumph here is that he builds to a finale where you know there can be only one outcome but the last 20 minutes of the film serves up some of the most heart-racing thrills in recent memory, ending with a rousing climax that may leave a warm tear in the eye.