The true story that inspired Ben Affleck's new film Argo is a cracker. In 1979, angry Iranian protestors, demanding the return of the Shah from America, stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took fifty of its staff hostage. Six escaped and took refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador, while the CIA back in Washington failed to come up with a single workable plan to get them home. The best idea they had was to send bicycles for the group along with maps to the Turkish border, but exfiltration expert Tony Mendez suggested creating a fake science-fiction movie called Argo, which would allow him to enter Iran on a location scout and remove the fugitives by having them pose as a Canadian film crew. Remarkably, all of this really did happen and – even more remarkably – it worked.
It's a hard tale to screw up in the telling, and Ben Affleck doesn't. This is Affleck's third feature as a director and it again proves that he's a serious filmmaker whose desire to make smarter-than-average mainstream entertainment is very commendable. Before Argo begins, the 1970s Warner Brothers logo appears onscreen, and it's clear that Affleck is as determined to evoke to the cinema of that era as much as he is to evoke the era itself. The ghosts of filmmakers like Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula haunt Argo, which is no bad thing, as directors in that league are at a premium in today's cinema. If Affleck fails to reach the level of the artists he aspires to, it's perhaps because he plays it a little too straight; compared to the electric atmosphere of Dog Day Afternoon or the weird eccentricities of The Parallax View, Argo feels a little colourless.
The film does have many virtues, however. Affleck is strong on atmosphere, convincingly recreating the sense of fear that gripped the US embassy as angry crowds stormed the gates; government workers frantically attempt to destroy important papers before gun-toting Iranians gain access to the building. In terms of scale, this is the biggest story Affleck has attempted to tell in his young directing career, and in many ways it's his most technically accomplished. The period detail feels authentic, both in its depiction of 70s Iran and the bland CIA offices at home, while Rodrigo Prieto's gritty and atmospheric cinematography is perfectly judged. Chris Terrio's screenplay also requires a blending of disparate tones, with the rising tension of the situation in Iran being juxtaposed against a lighter section set in Hollywood, in which Affleck's Mendez attempts to set his plan in motion. The director just about pulls off this delicate balancing act, although he occasionally risks having a bit too much comic fun with the foibles of the film industry.
Mendez's jaunt to Tinseltown introduces two of the film's most memorable players. John Goodman plays John Chambers, the Oscar-winning makeup artist (for Planet of the Apes) who had a clandestine second job assisting the CIA, and he helps Mendez enlist the services of producer Lester Siegel (a composite creation, played by Alan Arkin) to begin setting up their fake movie. This segment of Argo is played very much for laughs, with Goodman ("So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot, without actually doing anything? You'll fit right in.") and Arkin ("You're worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA.") forming a very amusing double-act. Affleck is a very fine director of actors, with Bryan Cranston also adding plenty of character to his role as Mendez's superior at Langley. Unfortunately, when Mendez flies off to Iran to execute his mission, all of these interesting performers are left at home.
I don't think it's any coincidence that Affleck's most accomplished film as director is Gone Baby Gone, the one in which he didn't also star. Dividing his workload across both sides of the camera doesn't do him any favours, and as a leading man Affleck lacks the charisma to make an underwritten character like Mendez come to life. The six fugitives he has come to rescue have been given few character traits to work with as well, so the Iranian section of the film just becomes a nuts-and-bolts exercise in tension. It works, because Affleck is a pretty good nuts-and-bolts filmmaker, but it's telling that the director feels the need to lay on twists and drama so heavily at the end of the film. The climactic flight from Iran is plagued by last-minute hitches and against-the-clock revelations, and it feels like every possible tension-building trick has been utilised simultaneously, creating a finale that's breathlessly gripping in the moment but curiously unsatisfying after the fact. Argo tells a story that's almost too good to be true, but the film Affleck has made is only just good enough.