There are very few films that truly change the course of someone’s life. Sure, Die Hard may be your favourite Christmas movie or you might have taken a term’s worth of piano lessons after someone showed you Amadeus, but none of that compares with the pivotal role Battle of the Planet of the Apes played for six Americans in 1979. The otherwise unspectacular fifth instalment of the Apes franchise, a clutch of films Mark Kermode claims contain all the secrets of life, inspired CIA agent Tony Mendes (Ben Affleck) to one of the most remarkable rescue operations ever.
On November 4th 1979 outraged Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking hostages in response to America’s sheltering of the recently deposed Shah. Six employees escaped to the Canadian ambassador’s house and remained trapped there for sixty nine days. Conventional extraction routes are rendered unviable by the extremities of the political situation and so Bryan Cranston’s CIA chief Jack O’Donnell (yes the real names do sound just like the Andy McNab fictitious ones) calls upon Tony Mendes’ outside/on the box thinking. Under the pretence of being a location scout for the Star Wars spin-off, Argo, Mendes would ‘exfiltrate’ (an ugly term that actually makes sense when considered the opposite of infiltrate) the hostages masquerading as his crew. Attempting to divert the attention of the Revolutionary Guard away from the chasm-like cracks in this tall tale, Mendes asks for help from make-up mogul John Chambers, played here by the garrulous John Goodman. Despite setting up a fake production company, complete with press coverage and swanky launch parties, Mendes flies out to Iran in a much more precarious position than any Jack Ryan or Jason Bourne.
With the political subject matter, and an opportunity to star and direct, it’s no surprise George Clooney was attached to the project for some time. That it is Affleck who eventually fulfils the dual role is integral to Argo’s success. As well as anchoring the film with a muted central turn that eschews melodrama, the Good Will Hunting star directs with confidence, variety and flair. Creative use of storyboards frame the narrative cleanly and the problems posed by the shifts in tone are negotiated without fanfare. Artistic sweeping shots, handheld cameras with vintage stock and ratios, plus the incorporation of iconic historical images widen the palette of the standard thriller direction and prevent any part of the narrative lingering.
Affleck is helped by a zinger of a script and a fantastic cast on fine form. The sharpest lines fall mostly into the experienced hands of Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston. As Arkin’s ageing director Lester Seigel dispatches witticisms with aplomb, Goodman sits alongside charming the pants off anyone with ears and eyeballs. The stand-out performance goes to Scoot McNairy, last seen heading up Indie masterpiece Monsters. He takes a role that could have descended into a negative archetype and develops it into a colourful believable character through thoughtful delivery of lines and well- chosen mannerisms.
Hollywood is renowned for projecting images, both physical and political; the CIA too shrouds reality but what Affleck makes clear in Argo is that acts of terrorism are courting publicity just as avidly. Drama of image and action are just as powerful on the streets of Tehran as in the Multiplex. Both communicate images to a global audience – as Cranston’s character says ‘they’re getting the ratings’. Affleck’s ability to co-ordinate the three worlds of duplicity in the film is what makes it an original thriller that will go down as one of the major successes of the year. Sparking debate around a subject that was still rearing its head in the US election, Argo tells one of the most astonishing stories in 20th century history with ingenuity and verve. Never does it feel like a Syriana-style history lesson. Affleck’s directorial career goes from strength to strength with this success and studios may well be knocking on his door, rather than Clooney’s, next time they want a real film made.