Back in 2007, Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, the revelatory ‘Gone Baby Gone’, was pulled from UK release schedules for six months because of its tragic parallels to the Madeline McCann case. Similarly, any viewing of ‘Argo’ – which opens on a provocative shot of a baying Iranian mob torching an American flag before storming the embassy gates – will inevitably be coloured by recent events in Cairo and Benghazi. For the sake of humanity, we can only pray that his mooted adaptation of Stephen King’s apocalyptic doorstop ‘The Stand’ is unburdened by such coincidences.
Yet ‘Argo’ has a deliberate, as well as circumstantial, prescience. In a few years’ time – assuming we don’t follow the U.S and Israel into their longed-for war first – the world will have to figure out how to deal with a nuclear Iran. On some level, at least, ‘Argo’ is a film about the human costs of playing politics in that region, and the West’s early missteps on what looks to be an inexorable road to conflict.
Its main function, however, is as a rollicking espionage thriller, one whose story is so unbelievable, it could only be true. At the height of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, six U.S diplomats manage to escape the Tehran embassy and seek refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. As the net closes in around them, it falls to CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) to get them out – easier said than done in “the most watched country in the world”. His plan stretches credulity, but is the only viable option on the table: he and the Americans will pose as a Canadian film crew on a location scout for their next movie, a godawful-sounding ‘Star Wars’ rip-off titled ‘Argo’. For their cover to be convincing, however, ‘Argo’ must become – if only for a short period of time – a real movie…
While Affleck’s character is the nominal hero of the tale, his is the least showy and most thankless role: ‘Argo’ really belongs to the ensemble of character actors to whom all the best lines are given. Such is the chemistry between John Goodman (as Oscar-winning ‘Planet of the Apes’ makeup artist John Chambers) and Alan Arkin (playing a fictional profanity-spewing Hollywood producer), you’ll wish they were given their own spin-off series. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston plays Mendez’ CIA supervisor as a bulwark of decency in the midst of a bureaucratic cluster-fuck, while Scoot McNairy – fresh from his weaselly turn in ‘Killing Them Softly’ – is impressive once again as the diplomats’ voice of doubt and skepticism. Eagle-eyed geeks, meanwhile, will delight at Tarantino-favourite Michael Parks’ one-scene cameo as comics legend Jack Kirby.
It speaks volumes of Affleck’s talent that ‘Argo’ manages the tricky tonal balancing act its narrative presents. There are two movies it will instantly remind you of: the first, with its gritty realism, luxuriantly-collared 70’s aesthetic and sombre geopolitical themes, is Spielberg’s ‘Munich’. The second, with its starry cast, fantastical central heist and crowd-pleasing one-liners, is Soderbergh’s ‘Ocean’s 11’. Finding the common ground between them is no mean feat; on paper, in fact, it sounds about as unlikely as Mendez’ plan itself. Nonetheless, the success of ‘Argo’ is largely based on its ability to move between these two extremes with aplomb, tempering scenes of unbearable tension with unexpected belly-laughs. The film treats its subject matter seriously, but as one character points out, “What starts as farce ends in tragedy.” ‘Argo’ has a firm grasp on both.
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Because this is a Hollywood movie about Hollywood saving the day, there are a few narrative indulgences: the real-life endgame was nowhere near as dramatic as Affleck makes out, while Mendez is given a fairly boilerplate backstory concerning his estranged wife and son. In a film that’s all about artifice and play-acting, however, this is understandable. Affleck, to his credit, makes the theme explicit in one bravura sequence which intercuts between the tinkling of champagne glasses at a script-reading of Mendez’ fake movie, blindfolded American hostages being led to the embassy basement for a mock-execution, and President Carter giving a posturing big-stick speech to mask his own political impotence.
It’s not quite flawless, mind. Though it addresses the grievances of the Iranians and shades in some of the backstory to the crisis, those lines are mostly delivered by American voices. While Affleck recognises that there are no outright ‘good guys’ in this conflict, his Iranian characters – the fanatical Revolutionary Guard, the bereaved father whose daughter was killed by the old American-endorsed regime, the housekeeper who recognises her country sliding into chaos – tend to be of the one-note variety. A stronger, more fleshed-out Iranian perspective would undoubtedly have been beneficial.
Ultimately, however, ‘Argo’ is a film which treats its complicated and volatile subject matter with nuance and respect, and manages to be uproariously entertaining whilst doing it. Three films into his directorial career, that’s a mighty-promising pattern for Affleck to have established. No longer the punchline formerly known as 50% of Bennifer, he is now Ben Affleck, legitimate auteur. ‘Argo’ is his best yet.