Ben Affleck’s new movie, an espionage-thriller that begins in 1979, is steeped in retro artifice from its opening, in which Saul Bass’s red-and-white 1972 Warner Brothers logo, accompanied by fake grain on consummately scratched “celluloid”, appears in place of the familiar gold-and- blue “WB” shield. From there it’s a short jump to eye-popping decor; big hairdos; even bigger glasses frames, and some very wide shirt and jacket collars. Argo, Affleck’s third film as director, dramatises part of the Iran hostage crisis, in which 52 US diplomats, following a takeover and occupation of the American embassy, were held in Tehran for a total of 444 days. They were released the day after Ronald Reagan took office; the affair had cost Jimmy Carter re-election. In particular, Affleck’s film recounts a previously classified operation known as the “Canadian Caper”: the rescue and “exfiltration”, in government lingo, of six of the diplomats who, having evaded capture, were holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s residence.
The State Department had sketched a few plans, but even the most plausible ones – have the diplomats pretend to be English-language teachers, or send in bikes and have them cycle hundreds of kilometres, in the snow, to the Turkish border – were flawed. Someone needed to enter the country, give the escapees false identities and calmly transport them through airport security. Affleck plays that someone, Tony Mendez, an identity-transformation and authentication expert at the CIA. The movie’s gaudy 70s vibe extends to his swathe of slightly greying hair, which falls somewhere between a Fab-Four mop-top and a Bieber-esque swish.
Mendez came up with a far-fetched but workable idea: he’d go into the country pretending to be a Canadian film producer scouting Middle East locations for a sci-fi movie – a Star Wars knock-off called Argo. The stranded diplomats would be his film crew. Mendez called up his friend John Chambers, who had won an Academy Award for his make-up work on Planet of the Apes, and asked for his help in creating a fake production company – and a plausible media environment, complete with storyboards, trade-paper notices and a poster. Argo has an extensive, amusing supporting cast, led by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Affleck’s first two directorial efforts, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), were novel adaptations that he co-wrote. He did not have a hand in the script for Argo; it came to him fully formed. The one area in which screenwriter Chris Terrio exaggerates the story unnecessarily – and, curiously, this afflicts Affleck’s previous films, too – is its overdramatic ending.
There’s nothing flashy or artful about Affleck’s work here – none, even, of the occasional showiness of his previous films – but there is one thrilling parallel-editing sequence late in the piece in which a dress-rehearsal table-read of the Argo script is cross-cut with the diplomats-as-film-crew surveying an underground bazaar as a possible shooting location. Affleck’s movie aims to be a send-up of Hollywood as well as an exciting spy story. It manages both halves well, and this careful balance is due as much to Terrio’s writing as it is Affleck’s reliable direction.
ARGO, directed by Ben Affleck
Films are rated out of 5: 1 = abysmal; 5 = amazing.