Ben Affleck’s latest as actor and director is a genuine nail-biter.
And so it should be. Argo is one of those thrillers that shouldn’t be true. Yet it’s based on a real-life scenario even if the building blocks of the plot sound far-fetched. Stranger than fiction but not stranger than fact.
In 1980 the United States was facing what seemed to be an impossible task: dealing with the issue of American nationals taken hostage in the newly revolutionised Iran.
Yet there was a handful that the Iranians had missed. Ensconced within the Canadian Embassy in Tehran, out of sight of the new Iranian elite, they became the focus of an outlandish CIA plot: announce a fake sci-fi movie – Argo – to be filmed in the Middle East and smuggle the hostages out as part of the “crew”.
What makes Argo work is the balance between East and West. Affleck contrasts the fakery of Los Angeles with the harsh reality of life in new Iran – a chaotic world of paranoia, rigid religious law, mock executions and hundreds of peasants piecing together millions of pieces of shredded classified documents.
It is this aspect that lends Argo much of its tension – that and the mood of Holocaust/Anne Frank subterfuge that, if replaced by complacency, could lead to the Americans’ deaths. It’s a race against time.
Affleck leads the film and presents a sombre, sober portrait of a career spook. He’s heavily bearded and sporting a long ’70s haircut. In fact, one of the film’s other high points is its Seventies backdrop which is never once overdone.
The cast is an ensemble of respectable players and not one of them a major A-list face. That duty is Affleck’s alone. He does, however, employ Alan Arkin and John Goodman as the Tinseltown producers who are in on the act. Arkin gets the best line: “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s got to be a fake hit,” proving that egos remained rampant even when lives were at risk.
Argo – which opened the 26th Leeds International Film Festival last week – is another winner from Ben Affleck.