Affleck triumphs with a story so preposterous it must be true
It's fair to say that not so long ago Ben Affleck was a bit of a joke figure while the 'Bennifer' saga played out in the tabloids. Few would have predicted that in less than ten years the six-time Golden Raspberry nominated star of such flops as Gigli, Surviving Christmas and Jersey Girl would be established as one of Hollywood's most talented film-makers, with an enviable reputation behind the camera as well as in front of it.
But that's what happened. Nobody expected much from his debut as writer/director of 2007's Gone Baby Gone, but this turned out to be a gripping, complex child abduction thriller that also took a well-aimed swipe at the media narrative of such cases. In 2010, he followed it with The Town – a superior Boston gangland saga in which he also starred. With Argo, however, he's made his best film yet, while continuing to multi-task impressively as director and star.
Telling a story so preposterous that it can only be true, Argo is a hugely entertaining and skilful blend of comedy and thriller, with the comedic elements playing out in Hollywood while the suspenseful life-or-death stuff unfolds in a febrile Tehran during the US hostage crisis of 1979/80. Daringly, Affleck often cross-cuts between the two. It's the kind of thing you might expect of George Clooney in The Men Who Stare at Goats mode, and indeed Clooney was originally attached to direct Argo before stepping back to take a producer credit.
Affleck begins with a brisk prologue offering a timely history lesson about how the US-backed Shah of Iran came to be deposed, paving the way for the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini and decades of crushingly oppressive Islamic fundamentalism. Palm-moistening opening scenes show panicking officials inside the US embassy in Tehran desperately attempting to shred and burn thousands of incriminating documents as the Revolutionary Guard storm the building in 1979, taking 52 hostages. Here comes the story that remained classified until 1997.
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Six consular officials escape and seek refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home. Realising that the sextet are in far greater danger of being executed than the hostages, who remain in the protective spotlight of the world's media, the CIA agonise over how to get them out. Enter scruffy "exfiltration expert" Tony Mendez (Affleck) who offers what comes to be known as the "least worst idea".
His plan is to pretend that the six are Canadian film-makers scouting locations for a garish Star Wars knock-off called Argo. Since many of the senior Revolutionary Guard were educated in the US, he knows the only way to pull this off successfully will be to make the sci-fi flick as convincing as possible.
That means placing ads in trade paper Variety, coming up with a proper script, and opening a Hollywood office. To this end, he recruits fictional veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and real-life prosthetics expert John Chambers (John Goodman, back in Matinee territory), who did the simian masks for the truly awful Battle for the Planet of the Apes (directed by Bristolian J Lee Thompson, lest we forget).
Arkin and Goodman make a brilliant wise-cracking double act, with the former getting most of the best lines. "You could teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day," he tells Mendez. Of the plan, he remarks: "We had suicide missions in the army with better odds than this."
Meanwhile in Tehran, Affleck ratchets up the tension as Mendez shepherds the suitably terrified Yanks through their movie-making deception in front of sceptical officials and hostile civilians.
Inevitably, there's been much controversy over how much of this actually happened. The climax in particular is dramatically convenient. But Affleck has been careful to point out that the film is only based on real events. His real triumph is to turn out such a gripping, enjoyable and frequently very funny film without losing sight of the seriousness of its subject.