For his third outing in the director’s chair, Ben Affleck abandons the comfortable surrounds of his native Boston to produce an exhilarating “based on a true story” tale of an ambitious CIA operation to evacuate six American diplomats hiding in the Canadian embassy in Iran in 1979.
The story of Argo came to light in 1997 when President Clinton declassified the information on the release of six hostages in Iran in what had previously been publicly announced as a rescue organised by the Canadian government.
Commencing with a storyboard-style potted history of Iran, Affleck doesn’t excuse the US or Britain for their misguided involvement in the 1953 coup d’état when they supported the overthrow of a democratically elected government in favour of a womanising Shah.
The early action shows hordes of Iranians forcing their way into the American embassy after the government gave asylum to the Shah. It’s all done with the eye for thrilling action that made Affleck stand out as a director to watch with his debut kidnap drama, Gone Baby Gone, and his crime caper The Town.
What’s unexpected both from the director and the narrative set-up, is the comedic tone change. Curiously, the film becomes truly gripping only when it starts to be played for laughs. Affleck himself plays the bearded Tony Mendez, a government agent who specialises in extracting Americans from tricky situations.
Sixty-nine days after the start of the hostage crisis he receives a call demanding his help. He comes up with a far-fetched scheme of creating a film production that wants to scout Iran for locations. His CIA superiors think the idea is crackpot but with no better plan, Mendez is given a week to set up a plausible film production that will fool the Iranian secret services.
Mendez calls up Planet of the Apes special-effects guru John Chambers (John Goodman) and is introduced to wily old producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). The scenes in which Chambers and Siegel give Mendez an insider’s guide to Hollywood are full of cutting, hilarious one-liners in which the duo depict Hollywood as a place full of vacuous liars and the most important skill is an ability to blag. They will definitely be in the running for Best Supporting Actors come awards season.
The film they choose to “make”, Argo, is a sci-fi adventure script so bad that Ed Wood would have turned his nose up at it. The final act is a race against the clock to rescue the hostages, and Affleck deserves all the plaudits he will get for his work on both sides of the camera.