Directed by Ben Affleck. Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan 15A cert, general release, 120 min
GET READY FOR war room action, action, action as Ben Affleck’s third feature as director transforms a real-life 1979 covert CIA operation into a robust thriller.
The historical antecedents are already plenty dramatic. When revolutionary forces overrun the US Embassy in Tehran, 52 Americans are taken hostage while six escapees make their way to the Canadian ambassador’s residence.
The State Department, as embodied by a delightfully twitchy Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell, is in crisis. How on earth can they smuggle the strays out without jeopardising future negotiations? All possibilities are entertained – including CIA operative Antonio Mendez’ mad notion that the Americans pose as a Canadian movie crew. “Its the best bad idea we’ve got, sir,” Mendez (Affleck) and O’Donnell assure Philip Baker Hall’s Warren Christopher.
With this in mind, our hero enlists the aid of Hollywood hacks John Goodman and Alan Arkin to best prepare for a daring caper and an entirely fictional Arabian Nights versus Planet of the Apes epic. “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” insists Arkin indignantly.
The details make for a rip-roaring story, which Affleck invests with old-school directorial élan. This is a film composed from exciting godammit moments and pronouncements: The car won’t start, godammit; my superiors don’t understand, godammit; they’re pulling the plug, godammit. At its best, Argo is high-do and 11th hour in the spirit of films Mendez could have enjoyed on the plane ride to Tehran.
Chris Terrio’s script preserves the essence of Mendez’ biographical tale of derring-do, and Rodrigo Prieto’s tight framing preserves the 1970s feel. If Argo-alikes Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men are combinatory culture, Affleck’s popcorn picture sidesteps realism altogether. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary troops have rarely looked as entertaining and nacho-friendly as they do here.
That’s not exactly a criticism. Argo’s momentum and muscularity is hard to resist. The boyish, defiantly brown-suited film’s only speed bump hits when the screenplay deviates from its era’s antecedents with a divorced dad subplot. We don’t recall Redford and Hoffman needing a ragamuffin sidekick back in ’76.