Film review | Argo - Ben Affleck wrings laughs and suspense from a strange-but-true spy story
A terrific thriller about an audacious episode of real-life derring-do, Argo features remarkable coups behind and in front of the camera.
Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, the film pulls off the feat of being both funny and suspenseful while telling the stranger-than-fiction true story of the outlandish CIA scheme to rescue six American diplomats from Tehran in 1980.
Affleck plays the man behind the plan, CIA agent Tony Mendez. An expert in ‘exfiltration’, he comes up with the ‘best bad option’ after Iranian militants storm the US embassy in November 1979, sparking a drawn-out hostage crisis.
Unbeknown to the Iranians, six of the embassy staff have managed to evade capture, slipping away in the midst of the tumult and taking refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. How, though, to get them safely out of the country?
Mendez’s far-fetched solution: create a fake Hollywood movie and pretend that the diplomats are part of a team scouting for locations in Iran. If their cover is blown, the six face summary execution as spies, so the fake movie has to be convincing. Step forward Mendez’s friend, Hollywood makeup expert John Chambers (the man who made the ape prostheses for The Planet of the Apes and created Spock’s ears for Star Trek) and veteran film producer Lester Siegel, played with entertaining comic pizzazz by John Goodman and Alan Arkin.
The pair purport to be making a sci-fi adventure, a piece of sub-Star Wars shlock called Argo, and set up bogus trade paper ads and storyboards, along with a script read-through and casting call, to give the project credibility.
These Hollywood scenes are great fun, affectionately satirical and stuffed with witty one-liners, most of them delivered by Arkin’s droll (fictional) producer. ‘If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,’ is one of his zingers.
Over in Tehran the mood is very different, as the six fret in their hideout, unconvinced that Mendez’s plan will work. With the escape hanging in the balance, Affleck skilfully turns the screw of suspense, gaining added traction from an extremely convincing recreation of the setting and period.
We’re rooting for the Americans to get away, of course, yet the film doesn’t demonise their adversaries and is remarkably even-handed in its portrayal of the crisis, reminding us that Iranian hostility to the US sprang from decades of American interference in the country’s affairs.
The storming of the embassy, shown on screen by means of a near-seamless mix of archive footage and re-enacted scenes, convincingly captures the emotions on both sides, from the righteous fervour of the Iranian protestors to the clammy panic of the Americans as they desperately shred and burn confidential papers.
At the other end of the film, the gripping climactic scenes can’t lay the same claim to authenticity, but Affleck has done such a superb job throughout that we can forgive him for the film’s few false notes.
Shown as the Accenture Gala at this year's BFI London Film Festival and in cinemas from Wednesday 7th November.
To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.