UK Release date: 7th November
Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston
Ben Affleck is fast aquiring a reputation for producing intelligent action thrillers which successfully balance gripping narratives and the right amount of sensitivity and depth towards their central characters. His 2007 directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, a tale of a deprived neighbourhood’s politics and ethical dilemmas, was positively received by critics and audience alike, with his follow up, modern day heist noir The Town, evoking similar praise. In adding Argo to his collection, it seems safe to say that Affleck has now achieved the triumphant move from unobjectionable actor to accomplished director.
Set during the 1979 Iranian revolution, Argo loosely tells the true story of American hostages held captive in their embassy in Tehran. Storming the building in reaction to the US sheltering of dying Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, protestors demand the despot be extradited to face trial for his crimes. What the revolutionaries don’t realise, is that six administrators managed to escape the siege and take secret refuge with Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) at his nearby residence. The news reaches the CIA and Tony Mendez (Affleck), a hostage extraction expert, is drafted in to bring them to safety. Conjuring a plan to have the six escapees pose as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for their Star Wars knock-off, sci fi adventure film, Mendez must first make believable this cover, then travel to Iran to remove the group under the safety of their new identities. Verging on the absurd, it is the “best bad idea” the Intelligence community has to offer, with comical and utterly nail-biting results.
The CIA operation is given the Hollywood touch when Mendez calls on established make up artist and props guy John Chambers (Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) to help find the perfect bad script (from which the film gets its title) and set up a fake film studio to give credibility to their story. The Chambers and Siegel double-act cleverly showcase Argo’s smart comedy in Chris Terrio’s often witty script. Their cynical humour (“You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in”), quick banter and pinch-of-salt attitude, allied with their admirable dedication to the cause, is deftly handled. The veterans’ nuanced, energetic performances seem set to garner attention during upcoming award season. In crosscutting this lighter side with threatening scenes of the occupied Embassy, and the bubbling tension on the market streets, Affleck expertly prevents the story from entering the utterly ridiculous. Together with highly atmospheric glimpses of the Iranian landscapes depicted in moments of beautifully dusty, hazy cinematography and lighting, he displays true cinematic craftsmanship.
Everything in the film feels completely authentic, from the costumes to the setting to the frequent Hollywood-at-the-time references. Affleck even incorporates genuine photographs from the real 1979 invasion into the fierce opening moments. The pacing is equally on-pulse, with the fast editing between CIA mission control and occupied embassy nudging you towards palpitation-stations. But the climax is what really gets the palms sweating. Although, in the same way that we all knew the outcome of Apollo 13, the knowledge of an inevitable Hollywood ending – in a double layered kind of way – does not distract from a skilfully executed final few moments. In fact, I was knawing at my nails for the last hour!
While he has received lukewarm reactions over the years for some of his performances and film choices, Affleck shines in his leading role as the calm and collected Mendez. The back story of his estranged partner and their son may reek of Hollywood schmaltz, but one could argue it creates a more rounded, sympathetic main character; we desperately will this flawed, heroic everyman to lead his charges to safety. The escapees could have perhaps received a bit more of the same treatment, Affleck here allowing little more than superficial detail to come through in their characters, though this is not enough to derail the piece.
Cynics will always exist, and there are whispers of the Argo approaching the realms of CIA propaganda. It has to be said that the portrayal of the angry Iranians perhaps feels a little too fierce at times, but the protestors are dedicated a good degree of sympathy in the opening scenes that gives justification to their frustrations. While a film’s ability to spark such controversial debate should be welcomed, on this occasion, the surrounding implications should perhaps not completely distract from what is simply a great piece of thrilling cinema. Standing as a powerful reconstruction of a celebrated moment in American history, this is a conclusion to a hat-trick that Affleck should be proud of.