"It's Theatre of the Absurd!" Tate Donovan's trapped American diplomat scoffs, upon hearing CIA operative Tony Mendez's (Ben Affleck) outlandish escape plan. And in a certain respect, that's exactly what Affleck's third outing as director is. Half stirring, subtle political thriller, half salty-mouthed Hollywood satire, Argo is certainly curious if not quite absurd, a blend of elements and genres that, on paper, shouldn't work together at all.
The fact that it comes together as gracefully and powerfully as it does should be final proof that Affleck-as-director is the real deal, and perhaps an indication that he's at his best working from someone else's script. Argo marks the first time he has directed without a writing credit, and it's by far his most technically confident and tonally successful film, not to mention the first that has a shot at major awards glory.
The CIA, struggling to find a workable means of exfiltrating the six, brought in specialist Mendez (Affleck) to spearhead their attempts. Dismissing one proposed cover story after another, Mendez eventually dreamed up an unorthodox scheme to disguise the six escapees as Canadian filmmakers, scouting exotic locations in Iran for an upcoming sci-fi called Argo. As Mendez's straight-shooting CIA supervisor Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) puts it: "This is the best bad idea we have."
This is where the Hollywood element comes in, and where Affleck's tonal tightrope-walking begins to wow. It would have been easy for Mendez's gallivanting in Tinseltown - where he enlists monster make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and sardonic studio bigwig Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) - to undermine the life-and-death CIA drama, but the wayward laughs only enhance the tension and emotional stakes.
Meanwhile rather than painting in broad strokes, Chris Terrio's script makes room for specific, small moments that deepen both worlds - take the detail of Iranian sweatshop children being used to piece together shredded embassy documents, or the savagely funny sequence in which Arkin dresses down a snarky WGA rep.
In front of the camera, Affleck barely registers: his Mendez comes off as such a cipher that the attempts to give him a humanising family backstory are the script's only false steps. He's given more than his share of bland turns in the past, but here he turns it to his film's advantage, surrounding himself with such powerhouse players - from Arkin's grizzled wit to Cranston's soulful resolve to standout hostages Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishé - that his blank-slate turn only emphasises their impact.
Nailing the tension, the terror and the gallows humour of its story without resorting to jingoism or losing sight of its political context, Argo is a close-to-flawless thriller with a devilishly smart mouth.
> 'Argo' LFF premiere: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston talk CIA thriller