Review – Argo
2012, 120 mins, 15, Dir. Ben Affleck, starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston and John Goodman.
Argo is Ben Affleck’s third film as a director. Having not seen his previous two, and having heard nothing but abuse related to his acting career (especially when teaming up with Michael Bay), I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But I was pleasantly surprised – Argo turns out to be a taut and intriguing slice of recent history, a thriller which takes a few liberties but has a wicked sense of humour which balances that out.
The film begins with a sequence that explains the situation in Iran in the late 1970s, which is where much of the film takes place. The USA and Britain in 1953 overthrow Iran’s Prime Minister in response to the nationalisation of the oil industry, and the Shah (or King) takes over, crushing all forms of political opposition. Two decades later there are mass protests; the Shah flees, but crowds swarm on the US Embassy. Many of the American diplomats are taken hostage, but six escape and are taken in by the Canadian Embassy. It is the job of Tony Mendez, a CIA Operative, to get them out, and he initiates a very unexpected plan; make the group pretend they are a Canadian film crew scouting for locations for a science-fiction film. It sounds almost ludicrous, and yet as fellow CIA Operative Jack O’Donnell says in the film, ‘It’s the best bad idea we have.’
Perhaps the main reason why Argo is so enjoyable is that it’s so funny. Screenwriter Chris Terrio uses the ridiculousness of the plan to craft some genuinely funny lines about the Hollywood film industry, which features prominently in Mendez’ preparation. John Chambers is his Hollywood guru, a true-life make-up artist who worked on Planet of the Apes, and satisfyingly portrayed by John Goodman. Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, is the disgruntled and aged film director, past his prime, enlisted to add his name to the fake project. It is he who has some of the best dialogue: ‘If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.’
But it is also pacy and well-directed. There are more than a few sequences in the film which keep you on edge, the imposing Iranian officials casting a shadow of doubt over the fates of the diplomats. Affleck is a great director of tension, but it is not just edge-of-your-seat stuff that he excels in. He shows attention to detail, whether it’s the nail on the wall of the Iranian Minister for Culture that once held an (absent) picture of the overthrown Shah, or the camera angles which so faithfully recreate photographs taken in revolutionary Iran. He’s also good with actors, and gets great performances across the board from all his cast, many of whom have simply magnificent 70s moustaches (as if Tom Selleck is showing up in every reel).
Argo may be about a hostage situation, but it is certainly not a film which glorifies America. While we do care for the plight of the six hiding diplomats, the film takes great pains to emphasise that it was indeed the USA that instituted the corrupt Shah, resulting in famine and poverty, and nobody could deny it takes some (admittedly hilarious) swipes at one of its biggest national industries, the movies. Rather, Argo focuses on the strength of co-operation between countries, and does it successfully.
Inevitably, some parts of the story do change, and towards the end of the film we are given a very Hollywoodised interpretation of the events. It doesn’t matter. For a story which has not been widely told, and as a film partially about that prestigious American industry, Argo is intelligent, hilarious and suspenseful, and knows it.