You’d better put your masseuse on speed dial, because dir. Ben Affleck is back with another crazy-tense thriller. After Gone Baby Gone concluded that we’re tied to our environments, and the rags-to-riches actor-director elaborated on the dichotomy with The Town while paying service to his native Boston, Affleck broadens to an international scale with the stranger-than-fiction story of a rescue mission built around a fake sci-fi movie production. But, keen to establish himself as an auteur, the same themes (and some notable motifs) are carried across.
An opening introduction sets the political backdrop for the Iranian hostage crisis at the end of the 70s. Refusing to condemn those who stormed the American embassy, it instead presents the event as inevitable response to sustained provocation. This is no good vs evil patriotic wankfest, but nor is it outright self-critique. We badly want the rescue to be successful because it would be a symbolic victory for humanity over the mob mentality, bureaucracy, fear and violence in general.
The fake movie part of the premise takes less of the stage than you might expect, but aside from bringing some big laughs it allows for some wonderful meta-discussion. Whilst pretending to be on a location scout to reinforce their cover, the six de facto hostages and Affleck’s CIA Agent are shown round a market. Their guide asks them if they’re making a “funny movie”, a fish-out-of-water comedy of cultural misunderstandings, a moment which reinforces the tragedy of the reality. It also draws into question the representation of Iranians (and other foreign cultures) in Hollywood movies and the American media, including Argo itself.
With the camera extremely tight to the characters throughout (claustrophobia which defies the widescreen) and a uniformly excellent cast doing a lot with relatively small screen time (especially Bryan Cranston, his best work in a decade), it’s a very effective thriller, as evidenced by the audience I saw it with – swept from cold silence to bursts of laughter and back and forth before ultimately drawing spontaneous applause (not even the contagious kind). There are moments which are played out to hit the formula but which you can’t help but forgive. The movie’s crowd-pleasing credentials will surely offer it hope come awards season but, no mere Oscar-bait, it’s an intelligent film with pertinent theme that outlives the narrative, as it’s done twice before. The mature realisation of a sublime trilogy from Affleck.