AND IT'S ABOUT TIME. CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS
Isn't it wonderful when a film and its makers treat you like a reasoning, thinking, grown-up human being and not like a gurgling imbecile with attention deficit disorder? Isn't it wonderful when a film and its makers assume you've an IQ above that of a woodlouse and tell a proper story rather than just flinging robots and lasers and gunfire in your face for two hours? Isn't it wonderful when a film generates phenomenal tension by accumulation of incident and sympathetic characters instead of cutting everything into a subliminal blur and blowing everything up to the accompaniment of a pounding soundtrack? Isn't it wonderful when people are cast because they're terrific character actors rather than because they're just really really hot this week?
If Argo didn't have the "based on a true story" caption at the start, you simply wouldn't believe a frame of it. When the Shah of Iran fled after the revolution, he was given sanctuary in the USA; in protest, baying mobs stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, taking the staff as hostages. But six Americans managed to sneak out and find refuge in the Canadian Ambassador's residence. Incredibly, the CIA cook up the most ludicrous cover story to get the six out of Iran before they're discovered: that they're a crew of Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for a science-fiction movie (the Argo of the title). To make the cover story absolutely believable, they even set up a production company, with specially designed posters, costumes and storyboards and even organise a readthrough of the script. But when extraction specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) gets into Iran and meets up with the "houseguests", they only have a few days to memorise their fake identities....
Meantime Mendez has to deal with the authorities at the Iranian Culture Ministry, the revolutionaries are gradually discovering that some of the Americans are unaccounted for, and the White House are having second thoughts about the whole damn plan - as well they might, as even Mendez and his boss acknowledge that it's the least bad plan they have, and one of the houseguests actually gets to say what we're all thinking: "it's crazy, but it might just work!". It all culminates in a third act of genuinely gripping suspense, the details and twists of which it would be unforgivable to spoil. Suffice to say that nails will be chewed to the elbows.
Equally suspenseful is the Hollywood comedy material with John Goodman and Alan Arkin - the juxtaposition of smart and truly laugh-out-loud one-liners about movie producers with Middle Eastern hostage drama and CIA thrills really shouldn't work, but incredibly none of these elements feel out of place. Nor does the nostalgia mask ever slip: from the lovely old Warners logo at the start to the grainy photography deliberately evoking 70s cinema, to the period detail of huge spectacles and facial hair. Staggeringly, pretty much everything about Argo works perfectly. And in a year in which actual money was made with films as artistically, spiritually and technically worthless as This Means War and Battleship, to find mainstream cinema aiming this high and succeeding is more than refreshing, it's invigorating.
I confess I wasn't hugely thrilled by Ben Affleck's two previous directorial outings, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, though I liked them both enough. But this is in a completely different league of film-making. For someone who likes movies of the 1970s and would frequently rather watch a film that's forty years old than something fresh on Blockbuster's shelves this morning, Argo is a joy. It's intelligent without being intellectual, serious without being pompous, funny in precisely the right places, properly paced, properly lit and edited. And it's absolutely one of the very best films of the year, and it's pretty much come out of nowhere. Isn't it wonderful when that happens?