Hollywood has always realised the magic of imagination, but it’s never forgotten the glory when truth is stranger than fiction.
In Ben Affleck’s latest film Argo, the caper heist is turned on its head. There’s no action man, no stunts, no financial gain or one last job before retirement. In fact there’s a political element, a somewhat patchy history lesson and a bit of Hollywood satire for good measure. Bring it on!
Based on the CIA agent Tony Mendez’s autobiography, it tells the story of how the storming of the American Embassy in Iran in 1979 led to six American officials managing to escape just as it was overrun by a pro-Ayatollah mob. Those unable to get out in time are brutally held hostage as tensions are volatile. Hiding out in the Canadian Ambassador’s House , the CIA knows it is only a matter of time before the six escapees are discovered and the clock is ticking.
Desperate for a plan they turn to the maverick Mendez (a neatly low-key Affleck), who decides the best way to rescue them is to pretend they are a film crew who are in Iran to get some landscape shots. As ridiculous and implausible as this sounds to them, it’s still the best idea of all the bad ideas they have.
To help with the plan Mendes decides to call make-up expert John Chambers (John Goodman), who has experience in giving disguises to the CIA. Deciding they need further assistance, Chambers rings up his long-time friend, veteran film producer Lester Siegel (a scene stealing Alan Arkin). Here the film’s funniest scenes and killer lines occur, as the wonderful double-act take the role as seriously as they would an actual film, going through all kinds of scripts, setting up a fake film launch and selecting the different film roles for the six. As Siegel says: “If I’m going to make a fake movie, I’m going to make a fake hit!” A Star Wars rip off has never been so entertaining.
The film switches back to a more tense mode as Mendez flies out with preposterous sci-fi action thriller, fearful of the cover being blown. Affleck excels at the political side, as the repercussions of how easy it would be to get caught, and how volatile the situation is. Scenes including shredded embassy documents being put back together, a frenetic reaction to the film team taking pictures and disagreements within the group as to whether they should take a chance on this stranger. As the group get closer to getting home, the tension reaches fever pitch as airport security gets suspicious and the angry revolutionary guards are on the scene.
As he showed with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck is a talent to watch behind the scenes and shows his continuing potential here, with subtly atmospheric directing and a good understanding of the different roles of the captured six. The 70s really are brought back to life and the comedic moments at the entertainment industry’s expense are reminiscent of Wag the Dog, The Truman Show and Network. Like the fake film itself, Argo does sometimes stray into fantasy over believability, but the ride is so much fun it’s hard to complain.