Film review: Ben Affleck triumphs as he directs and stars in Argo

5.00

The Force is with you, young Ben...

The old saw "truth is stranger than fiction" has had its teeth properly sharpened in the superb thriller Argo, a blend of political history and Hollywood hijinks that goes right for the jugular. Ben Affleck, its director and star, has hold of a real-life story whose telling has been long delayed, mainly because its information was classified, though perhaps also because nobody in their right mind would believe a word of it. Affleck and his screenwriter, debutant Chris Terrio, lay it out with the wit and confidence of film-makers who know they're on to a good thing.

The film spirits us back to the American hostage crisis in Iran, just after the Shah was deposed and the Ayatollah returned to power. It's November 1979, and a mob is howling outside the gates of the American Embassy in Tehran. When they break through and storm the building, 52 Americans are taken hostage, but amid the chaos six manage to escape and find refuge in the house of the Canadian ambassador. Ten weeks later, with the Iranian intelligence services closing in on the fugitives, the CIA are still floating desperate schemes to rescue them, including a 300-mile schlep across the border to Turkey – by bicycle.

Enter hostage-extraction specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), who concocts a desperate, yet ingenious scheme of his own while watching a Planet of the Apes movie on TV. The six "houseguests" will get out of Iran posing as a Canadian film crew on a location scout. All they need is a film to pretend to be scouting for.

This is where Mendez's inventive genius comes in. He contacts a make-up whizz, John Chambers (John Goodman), who in turn recruits old-school producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to put together a plausible front for a film that's never going to be made. They pick the script of a Star Wars knock-off called Argo, set up a fake production company, draw the storyboards and plant a news item about it in Variety. A film journalist asks Siegel whether it's "Argo" as in the mythical ship of Jason and his Argonauts. "No," the producer replies, "it's as in 'Argo fuck yourself.'" The phrase becomes the dissemblers' code. Meanwhile, Mendez packs his suitcase with Canadian passports and a file of backstories for each hostage, departmental doubts ringing in his ears: it's a bad idea, probably, but "This is the best bad idea we have, by far."

Affleck, whose previous directorial outings were the Boston-set thrillers Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), is as savvy as ever in his casting. Bryan Cranston, the magnificent centre of TV's Breaking Bad, brings a wry authority to the role of Mendez's boss, while the trapped hostages, more or less unfamiliar faces, emanate vibrations of deep anxiety. (Scoot McNairy, from Monsters, is the most recognisable). The period looks right, too, a predigital world of telexes, clunky phones and in-flight cigarettes.

Affleck himself, with a helmet of thick dark hair and beard, looks to have escaped from the pages of The Joy of Sex. What's new in his work is a sidelong sense of humour, both of the political sort ("Carter's shitting enough bricks to build the pyramids") and the showbiz sort. In the latter department, Goodman and Arkin offer a wondrous double act of seen-it-all cynicism, firing off one-liners like memos. When Mendez presents his scam for the first time, Goodman drawls, "So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You'll fit right in."

The tension, enhanced by Rodrigo Prieto's moody lighting, builds through the film very persuasively. Downtown Tehran looks like a circle of hell with its baying crowds and hanged bodies swaying on the end of construction cranes. The story keeps us up to speed with the investigative work of the Iranians, some of them mere children, piecing together shredded documents and photo-fits that will identify – aagh! – the missing six. (Shades here of Kevin Costner's face being agonisingly reconstituted by a computer in No Way Out.)

The real-life Argo mission, as Mendez tells it in his book, was fraught with risk yet actually proceeded without a hitch. The film, of course, won't let us off that easily, and soon begins crosscutting between the CIA backroom boys, the suspicious Iranians and the increasingly frazzled hostages, whose negotiation of airport security will have you biting what's left of your nails to the quick. It's a nice touch here that the most sceptical one of the six will prove to be the most capable when required to blag through the official cordon of doubters. Thank goodness for those mocked-up storyboards, too. As bribery material they prove their weight in gold (and probably cost a fortune on eBay now).

Argo is fabulous, but not flawless. Affleck ties on a long ribbon of coda, including a celebration of Anglo-Canadian amity, an aw-shucks hooray for Hollywood, and a reconciliation scene for Mendez and his estranged wife, with a glimpse of the stars-and-stripes fluttering across the doorway. He doesn't want to ring down the curtain, and after a thrill-ride like that you can't really blame him – so we also get a postscript and the now-obligatory photographs of the real-life Americans who hoodwinked the Iranians back then.

Their screen counterparts look a lot like them. The only surprise is that nobody has bothered to dust off the original script of Argo and make the thing. As a piece of trash sci-fi it couldn't be much worse than Battlefield Earth – or Star Wars itself, come to that.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star