Movie Review: Argo

I should hate Ben Affleck, he’s got leading man looks and is skilled in 3 different fields of movie making- acting, directing and writing. Add to that the fact that over the years he’s been involved with Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Garner and I should loathe the guy to the point of distraction, but there’s something exceedingly likable about the man whenever you see him interviewed or hear stories about him.

It also helps that over the years he’s churned out some movies I’ve really loved, from his Oscar winning script and fine performance in Good Will Hunting, to his great work in his collaborations with Kevin Smith, enjoyable popcorn fare (The Sum of All Fears, Armageddon, Smokin’ Aces, State of Play and, of course, Phantoms where he was the bomb), the so-bad-it’s-good Daredevil and now in great directorial efforts like Gone Baby Gone and The Town (review here).

He’s been steadily improving as a director, and in this his third movie at the helm he ‘s spread his wings, leaving Boston based crime thrillers behind to make a historical thriller.

argopos

Argo tells a remarkable true story set during the Iranian hostage crisis of the late 70s/early 80s. There is growing unrest in Iran due to the fact that the US has agreed to harbor and protect the exiled Shah, who had fled revolution and was wanted by the Iranians to face trial for his crimes and reign of terror. The anger boils over and the US embassy in Tehran is stormed and 52 Americans are taken hostage by Iranian forces.

Only 6 people from the embassy managed to evade capture and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Taylor is taking a massive risk in hiding them and after almost 10 weeks the Americans decide to try and “exfiltrate” them. Several ideas are floated but none are particularly good idea. CIA operative and exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) has been brought in by his boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), the CIA shoots down several suggestions from the State department and all seems lost until Mendez hits on an outlandish scheme to get the six out.

Time is of the essence before the Iranians twig that they’re six Americans short, and with squads of street children working on piecing together shredded documents which may allow them to ID the missing people. There’s also the risk of them being ratted out by the Ambassador’s staff and the potentially lethal consequences for all concerned.

Posing as a film producer they will say that the six people, dubbed “the house guests” are a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a film, and Mendez will go into the country and smuggle them out. However, to ensure the cover story works out the CIA must make the film look legit, leading Mendez to team up with an old friend, John Chambers (John Goodman), a special effects expert and begin trying to set up a sci-fi movie that they could legitimately aim to film in Iran. They settle on a script called “Argo” and enlist the aid of producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).

Chambers, Siegel and Mendez toast to their mission

Chambers (Goodman), Siegel (Arkin) and Mendez (Affleck) toast to their mission

They start to get press coverage for the flick and set up a fake production company and promotional material for the fictitious film, before Mendez travels to Iran to retrieve the house guests.

Can he get them out or will the Iranians identify them as their wanted Americans? Can their outlandish plan even hope to succeed?

This film is a corker, with Affleck directing a fantastically atmospheric and tense thriller. I’ve only ever been dimly aware of the Iranian hostage crisis, as it was all over by the time I was born, and what I do know about it could be fitted on the back of a postage stamp (it was in Iran, there were hostages, they were kept for over a year and it pretty much killed Carter’s hopes of reelection) which of course makes it all the more gripping for me as I honestly didn’t know how it was all going to pan out.

Affleck gets a lot of the background out of the way with a pretty cool opening sequence which gives a recap of the situation regarding the Shah and the reasons for the unrest in the area in 1979. It’s a very slick, quick way of getting everyone up to speed and allows Affleck to get right into the tense and nerve-jangling scenes of the rioting crowds. There’s a real sense of menace and boiling tensions in these opening scenes and the storming of the embassy is nightmarishly chaotic.

The film then cuts between the claustrophobic existence of the house guests as they hide out and the backroom machinations of the government agencies attempting to free them. The politics of these machinations is startling, from the way it’s decided to leave the six Americans in hiding for almost 3 months before acting on it, to the way the CIA is willing to allow the inexperienced State Department to attempt something as it means they are blameless if it all goes wrong. While the CIA would eventually come good, it’s rather depressing to see how concerned everyone appeared to be with how things would play with the public.

It’s also nice to see the CIA presented in a different manner than I’ve seen before. They’re usually shown to be a ruthlessly efficient and shady organization, but here there’s a shambolic side to their low-tech way of doing things and the agents are shown to be real people, with believable responses to unfolding events and an odd kind of idealism in their patriotic outlook and approach to their job, despite their outward cynicism.

But Mendez and O’Donnell are startled by the idiocy of some of the ideas they’re pitched until finally Mendez hits on an idea while watching a movie on TV. The plan that’s hatched involving a fictitious movie and all the work that goes into making it convincing seems so far fetched, but I guess the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction has something to it. What’s amazing is the end credits show images from the screen next to actual photos which shows how accurate it is.

Affleck manages to capture a feeling of the times perfectly, and is careful to show just how omnipresent the story of the hostages was in the States, with yellow ribbons hanging everywhere and frequent snatches of news bulletins marking how long they’d been held. While these were catching the headlines, the story of six poor souls hiding in a basement was largely unknown, which is part of what kept them alive.

The fraying nerves of the six is conveyed brilliantly in sequences where we see their day to day existence in the Canadian residency, and the actors playing the six are well cast and handle their roles well. Their dialogue is believable and they manage to capture the tensions and stresses they experience while also given subtle suggestions of the differences in their outlooks and personalities. The casting here is very well done, with all the performers being on fine form and while some are recognizable faces they’re not big stars so you’re never taken out of the moment and buy them as regular embassy staff members.

Especially good are Tate Donovan as the oldest member of the group who’s trying to hold it all together and Scoot McNairy as a guilt ridden, skeptical guy who clashes with Mendez over the plan to escape, which he sees as ridiculous and likely to get them all executed. His fears may be irritating to the viewer at times, as we’ve seen the work and risks Mendez has taken, but they’re understandable from his perspective.

The rest of the cast are sensational as well, especially Cranston, who appears to be going through a career renaissance at the moment, and who plays Mendez’s boss and friend with wit and easy charm, but gives glimpses of the steeliness and ruthlessness that has ensured his rise within the CIA.

Goodman and Arkin in particular being wonderful as the Hollywood guys who get embroiled in the plan and the fact both get engrossed and invested in the plan is handled in a sensitive and low key way.

This low key approach is part of the film’s success, there’s no macho posturing or cheesy “let’s get our people out!” speechifying, in fact it’s all handled in a rather subtle way. Yes, Mendez experiences a crisis of conscience but it never feels out of character for a man who seems quietly heroic. One of the best scenes is when he’s dropped at the airport before leaving by O’Donnell, and instead of any big moment regarding the mission, O’Donnell merely double checks who his contact is in case of emergency and delivers the CIA’s disclaimer that if captured or killed they will not claim Mendez as one of their own.

O'Donnell (Cranston) and Mendez (Affleck) pitch their outlandish scheme to the brass

O’Donnell (Cranston) and Mendez (Affleck) pitch their outlandish scheme to the brass

Affleck is clearly the star of the show, and his performance as Mendez is outstanding. He plays Mendez with this world weary, jaded air and restrained delivery which feels right for a government spook, but still manages to convey a lot about the man, from the way he almost comes to enjoy the Hollywood tomfoolery to this quiet dedication and heroism he brings to his job.

This theme of quiet heroism plays out throughout the movie, especially as Mendez and Co. would have to keep quiet of their efforts after the fact for almost 20 years, until finally receiving recognition for their part in the caper, and of course, the incredibly brave move made by the Canadian ambassador and his wife in risking their lives in taking in the fleeing Americans.

While there is an oppressive feeling of tension and claustrophobia for much of the film, it’s still an extremely enjoyable flick, wonderfully gripping but also a magnificent script which includes some wonderful lines and great humourous touches. Given the absurdity of the CIA’s plan it’s understandable that there’d be a few laughs along the way, especially as Mendez has to navigate new circumstances in LA, but I didn’t expect the film to be as funny as it was.

In Hollywood it’s the catty producer and loud mouthed effects guru, but a lot of the humour comes from the world weary CIA spooks and their sarky, cynical lines which raised frequent chuckles.

Affleck thoroughly deserves all the praise and accolades he’s received because he does a great job in getting the tone of the movie right, and balancing all the aspects right. He shows a knack for humour and tension, and also nice character touches, and manages to get great performances from his cast. It could have been an utter farce, but he does a superb job in making sure the threat is always real and in ensuring the audience genuinely cares what happens to the characters.

Verdict: Believe the hype. Third time out Affleck delivers his best movie to date in the director’s chair, crafting a gripping and engaging thriller, there are times when the tension is almost unbearable, but the amazing script and fine performances mean that there are light moments along the way. A masterpiece. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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2 Comments on “Movie Review: Argo”

  1. CMrok93 says:

    Affleck does a nice job with his direction, but this is definitely not his strongest feature despite being his most ambitious. It’s entertaining, well-acted, and fun to watch, but not as tense as it should have been. Good review.

  2. […] Ben Affleck continues to impress behind the camera and his execution of this historical thriller is sublime. Managing to capture the edgy tension of the hostages in Iran and the humour in the CIA’s unorthodox plan to extract them, swinging between belly laughs and nail chewing suspense. Review. […]


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