When the American embassy in Iran is ambushed by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979, hostages are taken and people killed in haste. However, six manage to escape through an underground tunnel and take refuge with the Canadian Ambassador in his official residence. With their safety and return to US soil of paramount importance, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is landed the task and fosters an elaborate plot to smuggle them out as a Canadian film crew on a location scout for a sci-fi epic in the vein of Star Wars.
Based on the declassified story, Argo opens in documentary-like fashion, with a brief history of the events that led up to the storming of the American embassy. Hereafter, Ben Affleck’s third directorial debut recounts the unbelievable efforts Tony Mendez went to to ensure the six refugees were returned, unharmed, to US soil, from forming a fake production studio, Studio Six, to enlisting the help of Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and award-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman).
Chris Terrio’s screenplay, which is based in part on Joshuah Bearman’s original article “How The CIA Used A Fake Sci-Fi Flick To Rescue Americans From Tehran”, is packed with vivid detail and driven with such force that ensures the audience will be kept on the edge of their seat from start to finish, even if they’re already familiar with how the story ends. He mixes the new footage, which is rooted in an unpolished roughness through Rodrigo Prieto cinematography, with archived footage to ensure the 1970’s feel is kept in tact.
The tension, however foreboding, is undercut with a fantastic sense of humour that not only brings welcomed moments of relief and aberration, but also embraces the true absurdity of the whole story. This is captured terrifically through the line “Argo fuck yourself”, which becomes somewhat of a running gag as the film reaches its crux and the plan is set into motion. Affleck’s direction compliments this well, turning what could be a past belief hocus into a finely crafted thriller with a pleasing underside of dark humour.
Affleck’s performance in front of the camera may not match the success he achieves behind, with Tony appearing too trivial for the audience to truly associate with his determination and desire to succeed. But it’s not too much of an issue, as the supporting cast more than make up for his unsubstantiality. Bryan Cranston is wonderfully droll as CIA officer Jack O’Donnell, while Arkin and Goodman flavour the film with a fantastic amount of wit in their roles as Hollywood heavyweights, offering a neat takedown of the daft film industry.
Argo may not have much substance to it (Affleck’s force of direction does well to cover up the cracks hidden within the screenplay), but there’s no denying it’s a perfectly tense thriller with a terrific amount of dark wit to ensure it doesn’t take itself too seriously as a comment on the apparent ruthlessness of Iranian protests. With a scattering of top-notch performances, a brilliantly understated score by Alexandre Desplat and an edge-of-your-seat final act, Argo is a neat piece of classic filmmaking, but not quite a through-and-through powerhouse triumph.