Argo is based on the true story of the 1980 rescue of six U.S. Embassy staff in Tehran who escaped capture by a militant mob by hiding in the Canadian Ambassor’s residence until a bizarre CIA plot managed to get them safely out of Iran.
Ben Affleck’s third feature as director is a stylistically subdued homage to the ’70s era studio filmmaking that Affleck clearly loves (signalled from the off by his use of a vintage Warners logo at the top of the film), and is strongest in the area in which he has previously demonstrated that he clearly excels; the creation of heart-stopping sequences of action and suspense.
The title of the film refers to a cheap sci fi film script which is purchased by the CIA as the basis of a farfetched rescue plan dreamed up by ‘exfiltration’ specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck); the six Americans become the key members of a Canadian production company’s creative team who will be departing Iran after scouting for cheap extra-terrestrial locations. In a discussion with several senior CIA men, including Mendez’ supportive supervisor (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston), the wildly risky plot is referred to as ‘the least bad idea’ for extracting the Americans. In order to make the whole thing more believable to the Iranians, Mendez enlists the aid of veteran Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and effects man John Chambers (John Goodman) to create an aura of authenticity.
In keeping with the absurdity of the premise, there is more humour on display than in Affleck’s previous films (dark Boston-set crime dramas), but the director never lets the film’s tone become broad or farcical, a respectful and appropriate decision as the lives of the six embassy workers were genuinely at risk, as were those of the Canadian Ambassador and his wife who offered them refuge. A scene in which Affleck and his Hollywood co-conspirators host a script-reading party for the industry press in LA borders on the absurd, in the way in which many of the industry’s trappings and practices appear to be when held up for scrutiny on screen.
The final half hour of the film in which the escape plan is executed, is probably the most riveting cinema that Affleck has yet crafted, as the deadly stakes are played out breathlessly through masterful editing. While not as emotionally resonant as his first film Gone Baby Gone, or as viscerally exciting as his heist drama The Town, Argo showcases the continuing evolution of a filmmaker who is quickly establishing himself as one of the preeminent directors of his generation.