The funny thing about movie star Ben Affleck is that he’s much more interesting when he’s behind the camera, though in his latest directorial venture Argo he’s pretty darned good in front of it, too. He unveils it on Wednesday night at the London Film Festival after a strong opening weekend at the US box office, backing up the critical and commercial success of his previously helmed thrillers Gone Baby Gone and The Town.
Any studio execs who think Affleck might be getting too big for his boots can rest easy though, for this film shows unusual deference to the Hollywood film industry. In it, he reveals the bizarre events surrounding the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, when six Americans are branded as spies and have no choice but to entrust their lives to CIA ‘exfiltration’ specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), Hollywood director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman), the Oscar-winning makeup artist on The Planet of the Apes.
It’s while watching Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall et al poking around caves in monkey suits that Mendez hits upon the idea of going into Iran under the banner of a Hollywood production company, ostensibly to scout locations for a big budget sci-fi adventure. Knowing there’ll be extensive background checks, he sets up a production office and buys the option on a shelved story of planetary invasion called Argo, hires Chambers and Siegel and begins courting publicity.
The elaborate nature of the set-up gives the story the beat of an old-fashioned heist thriller along with the sun-bleached visuals and the men in gaudy polyester suits, nervously furrowing their brows behind oversized spectacles. But there’s also a rich vein of dark humour that draws a parallel between the worlds of international espionage and the entertainment business (both dependent on smoke and mirrors). Arkin drives the point home in a wickedly funny turn as Siegel, making it clear to Mendez that if he’s going to attach his name to a fake movie, it had better be a fake hit.
As is a moviemaker’s wont, Affleck does take dramatic licence with the story. Siegel is an invention and an effective one too, but in reality Mendez cast one of the Canadian officials who sheltered the hostages in the role of director. Presumably he couldn’t find a real one who would risk being associated with Argo, a project dragged from development hell. That means Affleck is free to make Siegel a larger-than-life character, but the truth of what happened is always stranger. This is the kind of film that brings you to the edge of your seat and has you falling out of it in amazement.
Affleck also milks every opportunity for suspense, which is a mean feat considering that in the closing act – when Mendez leads his film crew to the airport like Moses with a sound boom (okay, there was no sound boom either) – everything goes pretty much according to plan. It becomes a nerve-shredding account of what almost went wrong, taking every close call (including an abort order from the White House) down to the wire. Ron Howard pulled a similar trick with Apollo 13, creating tension in spite of the fact that everyone knows the guys made it home okay.
It might feel a little too contrived in moments and Affleck admits adhering only to “a spirit of truth” rather than the facts as they happened, but this is still a remarkable and inspiring account of true heroism and certainly a fitting tribute to Mendez and the late John Chambers, given their obvious appreciation of the cinematic arts. The files were only declassified under President Clinton, finally allowing credit to be given where it is due and if a few pedants want to take issue with the details, they should be reminded that sometimes, misinformation saves lives.