Argo is the end result of a perilous rescue mission. For the hostage, it has been a long road to freedom, but we can now confirm: Ben Affleck is free from his tabloid-friendly past and is now a fully-fledged A-list director.
The true events behind Argo couldn’t be made up (well, they could, but they’d be derided as utter rubbish). In 1979, the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries and the seizing of most of the staff therein would be witnessed by the world, and would play no small part in ensuring Jimmy Carter would not be re-elected the following year. Amid this crisis, a smaller and more tightly-wound story emerges. Six of the embassy staff escape to the Canadian Embassy, and it falls to a CIA specialist, Tony Mendez (Affleck), to get them out before they are discovered. The CIA is the go-to boogeyman in many a conspiracy thriller, but Argo is a helpful rehabilitation from the icy likes of Joan Allen chasing Matt Damon in the Bourne series. Rescuing these poor sods is an almost impossible situation but, as with most of the impossibilities in Argo, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio make the canny choice to make light of the situation. Suggestions such as having the hostages cycle to the Turkish border can only be laughed at.
Ergo, we arrive at ‘Argo’. Mendez conceives of a fake movie crew travelling to Tehran to scout locations for a sci-fi film. Mendez is to arrive on his own, and come back with his six-man ‘crew’. Mendez travels to Los Angeles to create enough of a pretence to allow him to get into Tehran without being disturbed. ‘Argo’, the script that Mendez unearths, is weak but then so many schlocky pictures are made out of desperation and little else. Argo acknowledges this less glamorous side of Hollywood through Mendez’ helpers, make-up guru John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Between them, they get Argo’s best lines (“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!”) and reflect the seedier side of the industry, with enthusiasm replaced by aged resignation. It’s also delivered with pith and a wry sense of humour. For a true-story thriller, Argo is surprisingly funny. Chambers and Siegel coin a brilliantly sweary catchphrase which you are guaranteed to use after you leave the cinema.
Once Mendez arrives in Iran, he finds his wards and ‘scouts’ Tehran. The second half is a slow build before a ridiculously tense final half-hour depicting the escape. All credit to Affleck; as a period piece and as a thriller, Argo is top-notch filmmaking. It’s pacy, it looks great and it’s got more than its share of killer lines and exchanges. The performances are solid, though Bryan Cranston (as Mendez’s boss) and Victor Garber (as Canadian ambassador Taylor) are of note. That said, the characters are arguably relegated in favour of upping the thrills. It’s slightly disappointing in that sense, given that this is all based on true events, but you’ll be too busy hanging on to the edge of your seat to worry about that.
Besides being Affleck’s best film as a director to date, Argo is an accomplished and clever thriller, using history to its advantage without manipulating it beyond recognition. Conspiracy theorists might argue the story of Argo was declassified to promote a good image of the Agency; then again, it might just be a cool story made cooler by the fact it actually happened.
This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie