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
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
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.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?