Suspenseful, technically accomplished and skilfully judged, Argo is another strong entry on Ben Affleck’s burgeoning directorial CV. The one-time Pearl Harbor star continues the resurrection of a Hollywood career that was all but dead after falling off a cliff in the early 2000s. Not only has he made a gripping drama based on true events, he has crafted a popular and critical hit from a story set in the Middle East – a subject normally poison at the box office. There is already (maybe prematurely) talk of success in the forthcoming awards season, and even if it doesn't quite measure up to classic thriller status, there’s no denying it's a polished piece of work.
Set during the Iranian hostage crisis, the story concerns six US embassy staff who managed to escape while it was being stormed in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. After they seek refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, the CIA casts around for a way to bring them back home without the Iranian authorities finding out who they really are. Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with the outlandish idea of posing as a Canadian film crew searching for exotic locations to shoot a cheap Star Wars cash-in. Bizarrely, the plan is approved and Mendez finds himself organising a film called Argo that will never be made before jetting off to one of the most dangerous situations in the world.
From the word go it is evident that Affleck has made every effort to craft Argo in the style of late 70s Hollywood. The old Warner Bros logo pops up, accompanied by scratches and flecks of dust. The photography has the grit of a film made around the same time as All The President’s Men, a stylistic touchstone for Affleck judging by the early office-based, dialogue-heavy scenes. Even the amount of facial hair on display is impressively authentic. All of which creates a faultless sense of time and place, re-enforced by the animated intro which provides useful historical context for those unfamiliar with recent Iranian history.
The effortless confidence with which Argo unfolds is remarkable. With elements of the thriller, period drama, homage and comedy genres all constantly rolling around, it would have been quite easy for the film to fall between several stools. Affleck wisely focuses on the suspense, letting the other aspects add texture to the story. Given that much of the film consists simply of people sitting around tables and talking, there's little in the way of traditional action; yet by the end you’ll be absolutely hooked, even if the script eventually resorts to more conventional plot mechanics to deliver a familiar race-against-time climax. It's easily forgivable though, as the script stays true in spirit to the events of the now-declassified operation.
Argo is as much about cinema and the art of deception as it is about the hostage crisis in Iran. The aforementioned nods to 1970s Hollywood, a period many regard as its artistic highpoint, are amusingly contrasted with shots of the landmark sign in the hills above LA being in a severe state of disrepair. Hollywood might look broken, but its output suggests otherwise. The same might be said of make-up artist John Chambers, played here by John Goodman. The man who, like Mendez, made a living out of deceiving people - and won on Oscar for his work on Planet of the Apes - was by this time reduced to slumming it in Z-list productions, a world briefly glimpsed when the pretend-movie Argo sets up shop with Chambers and sardonic producer Lester Siegel (the excellent Alan Arkin) organising a cast read-through of the dreadful script. The injection of laughs early on nicely counterbalances the later Iran-based sequences, where rampant fear and suspicion threaten the lives of both Iranians and Americans.
Affleck unselfishly directs himself, not hogging the screen even though his character is at the story's centre throughout. Though not a hugely talented actor, he is sympathetic as the resourceful Mendez, and he wisely surrounds himself with a strong cast of familiar faces. It all adds up to a slick and hugely entertaining package, and one that will probably see Affleck move to the A-list of directors working in Hollywood today.