It’s a little-known fact that Ben Affleck – celebrity totty, tabloid bait and esteemed filmmaker – has a degree in Middle Eastern affairs from the University of Vermont. It’s a qualification he puts to good use in ‘Argo’, a nail-biting thriller based (fairly loosely) on real events which, for the majority of its length, manages to avoid the expected Hollywood clichés about the Arab world and promote a balanced view of America’s dealings with that troubled region.
It’s 1979, and after the fall of the Shah supporters of the new Islamic rulers of Iran have laid siege to the US embassy, demanding the return of their former leader for trial. But six embassy employees have escaped, and are hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck) a CIA exfiltration expert with a crafty if bizarre plan: posing as a film producer – complete with sci-fi script, production sketches and an ad in Variety – he’ll smuggle the six back to safety.
For 100 minutes, ‘Argo’ is close to flawless. Unashamedly modelling his directorial style on the stark, serious ’70s thrillers of Alan J Pakula and Sidney Lumet, Affleck cranks up the tension expertly. The script is witty and insightful, contrasting US and Iranian popular reactions to the crisis: it’s ‘Death to America’ versus ‘Ayatollah Assaholla’. There’s not enough attention paid to character development – Mendez, in particular, never comes into sharp focus – but that was true in the Pakula/Lumet films, too, and it’s mitigated by a superb cast, notably Alan Arkin as an irascible Hollywood old-hand.
But the film’s most abiding pleasure lies in the period detail: using multiple film stocks and reportedly blowing up some of the 35mm footage for a grainier texture, Affleck achieves the look, feel, and almost smell of the late 1970s. From the opening, old-school Warner Bros logo – snatched from a crackly ’70s print – to the closing montage of real photos of the hostages, there’s a commitment to minutiae which enriches the experience beyond measure.
So it’s a shame that Affleck bottles it in the home stretch, bowing to the demands of the multiplex to offer a frankly idiotic action-packed climax, and ending on a note of odious sentimentality. It’s almost enough to erase what’s gone before – but that would be to undervalue the remarkable skill, intelligence and craft that have gone into this oh-so-nearly brilliant political potboiler.