Following on from the critical success of 2010’s heist movie The Town, Argo sees Ben Affleck complete his transformation from the smug, hammy actor of Pearl Harbor, Daredevil and Gigli to one of Hollywood’s most exciting young directors.
Argo is based on the true events of November 4 1979, when the US Embassy in Iran was stormed by insurgents, who took 52 Americans hostage. Six managed to escape and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, though were sure to be killed if found out, so the CIA turned to “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez to hatch a plan to spirit them back to home soil.
Inspired by a late-night showing of Battle For Planet of the Apes on television and his son’s love of sci-fi, Mendez (Affleck) goes cap-in-hand to his Hollywood contacts to producers to set up a bogus Star Wars-lite production to be ‘filmed’ in Tehran. The six detainees would then be given false identities as Canadian filmmakers, and snuck out of the country whilst ‘scouting’ set locations.
The film is shot through a grainy ‘70s lens and Affleck’s attention to detail in recreating the event and time period redefines notions of authenticity, with contemporary brand logos and products aplenty including the old Warner Bros titlecard at the beginning of the film. By the time the closing credits come round, images of the actors are placed next to their real-life counterparts and they all look remarkably similar, like bona fide doppelgangers. Stylistically, Argo feels like a long-lost ‘70s New Hollywood relic, and it channels political thrillers like Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men.
Argo is not without its flaws, the characterisation is fairly weak: Mendez is too much of a determined workaholic to have any charisma, whilst the hostages are glum and uninteresting. Affleck fails to truly deal with the complexities of the revolutionary period, with the Iranians generally portrayed as an angry mob. Hollywood veterans John Goodman (as make-up artist John Chambers) and Alan Arkin (film producer Lester Siegel) are on hand to provide a few laughs along the way as the film pokes a bit of fun at the film industry.
The film’s conclusion takes a liberal dose of creative license as the Iranian authorities attempt to prevent the hostages from escaping the country: in real life the rescue mission was a lot less chaotic according to Mendez’s report. The race-against-time finale makes for an exciting third act though.