From early acclaim to laughing stock to rebirth as a go-to director for quality thrillers, Ben Affleck's career trajectory has been one of the strangest of recent years, dumbfounding his harshest critics and giving long-suffering defenders plenty of I-told-you-so satisfaction. His first two directorial outings, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, were adapted by the man himself from great crime novels and were set on the streets of his beloved Boston. For Argo he's working off someone else's script (Chris Terrio) and has gone political, telling the remarkable and long-classified true story of events during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. It's Affleck's most ambitious film to date. It's also his best.
When the American Embassy in Tehran is stormed in November 1979 six diplomats have the choice of waiting for the hordes to run up their corridor or leaving by a side door and taking their chances outside the compound. They choose the latter and are given sanctuary in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. For the moment they're safe; but with the revolutionaries going through embassy files page by page (and, indeed, shred by shred), it's only a matter of time before their identities are discovered and escape becomes impossible.
Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA man who works as a "Moses" - getting people out of no-hope places. After listening to his higher-ups' ludicrous escape plan for the six, 'exfiltration' specialist Mendez offers up one of his own, a hustle so audacious and over-the-top that if it was in a movie people would throw popcorn at the screen. The suits are dumbfounded but Mendez' is the "best bad idea" they have. And the clock is ticking ever faster.
Opening with the classic black-on-orange Warner Bros logo and a fast but highly effective run-through of Iranian history, Argo belongs to a better time for movies - that 1970s golden age and the conspiracy thrillers which helped make the decade so special. It is, essentially, three films in one - a political nail-biter, a Hollywood satire and a race against time - and Affleck shows the extent of his behind-the-lens mastery by locking the three together into a gritty-yet-graceful whole with a powerful modern-day resonance. He switches tone between crisis and comedy without ever losing the audience; the attention to period detail - including that old All the President's Men chestnut of using TV reports to propel the narrative - is superb and the performances are so strong that you wish there were more scenes involving everyone on screen.
In the lead role, Affleck downplays his character's heroic qualities, focussing instead on the personal price of living a job. As his desk-jockey boss, Bryan Cranston always seems like he's one phone-call away from a meltdown, while John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the old school Tinseltown double act are, as ever, a delight. You can smell the Oscar nominations from very early on, with Affleck deserving an honorary one for managing to put the tension back into one of the most jaded of movie clichés - someone typing and looking at a computer screen. You'll shed half a stone in the last half-hour.
Make sure to hang on for the closing credits - you'll be even more impressed with Affleck's achievements. His next film can't come quick enough.