November 4, 1979. As the US Embassy in post-revolution Tehran falls to a mob of Ayatollah-supporting students, six officers slip out and seek sanctuary with the Canadians. It is up to the CIA’s Tony Mendez (Affleck) to extract them from the country before they are discovered by the Revolutionary Guards. The plan? Create a fake movie, called Argo, and pretend they’re the crew.
Hollywood has always been partial to a good old spy yarn, especially since the genre’s paranoiac, post-Watergate ’70s heyday. It also enjoys taking sideways glances at its own garish reflection (cf. The Player, Wag The Dog, State And Main). So, once the relevant CIA documents became declassified in 1997, revealing the stunning, real reason for a certain Star Wars rip-off once hyped in the pages of Variety never getting greenlit, Argo (working title Escape From Tehran) was surely a cinematic inevitability. It is a great ‘weirder than fiction’ story. One, in fact, that was the subject of a feature in this very magazine almost five years ago. Although, if you’d told us then that its adaptation would star and be directed by Ben Affleck rather than George Clooney (then attached, now only a producer), we’d have been as disbelieving as if you’d told us, pre-declassification, the very facts of this strange case.
To be fair, Affleck’s impressive directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, was then already in the can and earning approving nods in press-screening rooms. But neither that nor even his follow-up, The Town — another strong Boston-based crimer — necessarily proved an aptitude for international period-nailing dramas, let alone one, oddly, with a virtually comedic middle act and a difficult climax. Yet here we are, just as Awards Season 2012 is warming up and the glowing late-summer festival reviews have poured in. It is hard to imagine Clooney, either in front of or behind the camera, doing a better job.
The Affleck of Argo couldn’t be further removed from the hunk that cried crocodile tears and jutted his mandible for Michael Bay all those years ago. Perhaps his ultimately embarrassing travails in the BGBG (Before Gone Baby Gone) Era fed usefully into Argo. You can imagine a crooked smile springing up on that square jaw as he pored over newcomer Chris Terrio’s snappy script and clocked the zinger, “You could teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.”
Such bon mots are largely growled by Alan Arkin as (fictional) fading producer Lester Siegel, recruited by the CIA via amiable make-up genius John Chambers (John Goodman, playing the man who won an Oscar for his work on Planet Of The Apes) to set up the fake space opera that would provide the cover story for the Agency’s Tehran-based exfiltration operation. The Hollywood segment must have appealed to Affleck, and Clooney before him, as much for its outcome as for its breezy, self-deprecatory tone: this was a rare occasion where movies helped save the day for real, and where success went entirely unnoticed.
You can’t begrudge Affleck giving himself the ‘hero’ role of Company man Tony Mendez, because in a sense it’s the most thankless. He’s a hunched, unshaven, bleary-eyed, rumpled-shirted schlub, a man who wakes up in the morning fully clothed, surrounded by empty Chinese food cartons. He has no big, shouty-speech moment, despite his earnest conviction during the early CIA scenes that the “Hollywood option” is the best on offer. He simply moves quietly around the story’s dramedic triangle.
At one corner are the Tinseltown antics of Arkin and Goodman. At another are the CIA office scenes, headed up by Bryan Cranston as Mendez’ boss, who gets all the great lines not spoken by Arkin, including the film’s finest: “This is the best bad idea we have, sir.” And then there is the sharpest vertex, involving the six American consular officers holed up at the Canadian diplomat’s residence, whose journey takes them from narrowly escaping their embassy’s fall to having to swallow Mendez’ plan, which involves each of them pretending to be a department head of a non-existent B pic, who have simply visited the country for a recce.
It’s here that we find the film’s strongest performance, delivered by Monsters and Killing Them Softly’s Scoot McNairy, half-buried beneath bottle-glass peepers and a thick lip-brush. The CIA has predicted that his older colleague Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) will assume leadership of the group, but in fact it’s McNairy’s previously unassuming Joe Stafford who exhibits the most mettle under these nerve-twanging circumstances. When Mendez lays out his crazy scheme, it is Stafford who balks. In other hands this might have made him the, ‘Oh, just shuddup!’ guy; the twitchy doubter who in an Irwin Allen disaster movie would buy it at around the 70-minute mark. But McNairy and Affleck ensure that during their confrontations, it is with Stafford the sympathies lie. He’s not wrong: the plan was nuts. He is the clearest thinking, most emotionally honest and relatable person here.
Argo, really, is a series of balancing acts. One virtuoso sequence begins with a freaky-ludicrous public casting call, attended by various Hollybozos in sparkly motley. As these blithe, cut-price Threepios, Mings and Flashes launch into a script-reading while champagne flutes tinkle and cameras flash, Affleck intercuts with a chilling scene of trussed American hostages being hustled to a dank basement with sacks over their heads, where they are treated to a mock execution by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, their knees buckling as rifle hammers dully snap down. This could jar horribly, but it works: the sense here is that everyone is putting on a show. The CIA, in putting on a fake movie junket. Hollywood, because, well, that is its very business. And the Khomeini-supporting Iranians, proving to a decadent world that they are not to be taken lightly.
The theme pulls the film neatly together and gives it thrilling impetus when it could so easily have stalled: during the final act. The truth is, there wasn’t a particularly dramatic denouement to the real events, but writer Terrio and Affleck here embellish the facts sensitively and effectively, among other things giving McNairy his glory moment as he hastily has to pitch this so-called “cosmic conflagration”, complete with comic-bookish storyboards, to an itchy-trigger-fingered Iranian soldier. Elsewhere, tried-and-tested tension-ramping techniques, while perhaps over-familiar, are applied judiciously, for example as the terrified sextet has to suffer a tour of Tehran’s bazaar in their flimsy show-people guises (Rory Cochrane’s faux-cinematographer looking through a viewfinder the wrong way) amid an increasingly ugly crowd; or when the irritating rhythms of movie production prove at one point to have potentially fatal consequences.
As Cranston’s character notes, there will be no applause for Mendez if his Escape From Tehran show is a success. But there will be for Affleck. And for a man shaping up to be one of America’s smartest mainstream drama directors, any ovations will be thoroughly deserved.
An old-school espionage thriller with a movie-biz comedy twist, all the better for being (almost) entirely true. It is to Ben Affleck’s credit that the tension and laughs complement rather than neutralise each other.