x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Argo: Taut and terrific

A superb mix of thrills, humour and great acting making this a must-see.

Ben Affleck, centre, plays Tony Mendez the CIA specialist who posed as a filmmaker to extract American diplomats from Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis. Claire Folger / AP Photo / Warner Bros
Ben Affleck, centre, plays Tony Mendez the CIA specialist who posed as a filmmaker to extract American diplomats from Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis. Claire Folger / AP Photo / Warner Bros

Argo
Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Tate Donovan
*****

In 2007, the Wired magazine journalist Joshuah Bearman wrote an article based on declassified CIA documents that detailed how a group of American diplomats were extracted from Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis. His research forms the basis for a movie that would be completely unbelievable if it weren't actually true.

Posing as a filmmaker, the CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) gathers an unproduced sci-fi script (the Argo of the title), sets up a phoney film studio with the help of the Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) for credibility, and then travels to Iran with fake Canadian passports to extract the hiding diplomats, claiming they are in Iran as part of his crew who were location-scouting for the Star Wars-style movie they are making.

Combining action with archive TV news footage of the crisis, Affleck's third film as director has the feel of a 1970s thriller - claustrophobic, tense and smoky (thanks both to the cigarette-filled ashtrays in every scene and Rodrigo Prieto's stylish cinematography) - with the final scenes of the group's escape so edge-of-the-seat you'll risk tipping on to the floor - quite an achievement considering we already know the outcome. Affleck admits this scene is more exciting than the real extraction, but it's so fast and fraught you won't care about a little dramatic licence.

In many ways this is Affleck's movie. But while his onscreen presence (in a low-key central role) is welcome, it is actually his skill behind the camera that should be most applauded. Having delivered two sterling movies as a director - Gone Baby Gone and The Town - he surpasses both with this superbly executed mix of drama, thriller and even comedy.

Goodman, as the real-life make-up effects man Chambers, best known for his Oscar-winning work on the original Planet of the Apes, is a treat and he is joined by the wonderfully deadpan Alan Arkin as a fictional producer who helps Argo become a reality - a casting call they set up, complete with sci-fi wannabes in home-made costumes, is a hoot.

The actors playing the hiding diplomats deserve praise too, especially Scoot McNairy as the one member not afraid to say out loud that Mendez's plan is completely bonkers.

This is one of the best American mainstream movies of the year and another taut, terrific film from director Affleck. Truly unmissable.