Director: Ben Affleck. Warner/Smoke House/GK Films. (15)
Producers: Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Grant Heslov.Writer: Chris Terrio. Camera: Rodrigo Prieto. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Sets: Sharon Seymour.
Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Bob Gunton, Adrienne Barbeau.
Shortly after the deposed Shah of Iran is granted asylum in the United States, angry crowds in Iran gather frequently outside the American Embassy. When the crowd storms the building, six employees escape and hide in the home of the Canadian Ambassador (Garber) and sit it out. Stumped as how to rescue them from a country in turmoil, the CIA’s Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with an idea to fake the production of a science fiction movie (Argo), using a location scouting trip to the Middle East as the cover. Despite initial reservation, Affleck travels to Iran and prepares the embassy staff to leave.
Seeing as Iran, Iraq, or general Middle East-bashing has been de rigueur in Hollywood for many years, it is probably no surprise that this presposterously plotted, ‘all Iranian’s are crazy revolutionaries’ thriller was green lighted.
What is more amazing, almost fantastically beyond the realm of probability, is that the story is actually based on real events. It sounds vaguely like Alexandro Jodorowsky’s (actual) plan to first film Dune in the seventies with Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson in the cast. Of course, many years have passed since the events depicted here (1980) and confidential government documents have long since had the dust blown off them, turned into articles (by Joshua Bearman) and now adapted into Hollywood blockbusters (we’ll sidestep the 1981 Canadian TV movie that recounted this story).
A Hollywood film that looks favourably (or at least doesn’t dwell on long since elapsed violence) on Iranian culture and people would be almost too dramatically implausible to ever make it onto a producers desk. This said, Argo is still a very good film from a director/star with considerable talent in creating a slick product.
Affleck looks even more impossibly handsome with a beard like a privet hedge that covers that lantern jaw whilst also managing to look twice as miserable as usual as the hero of the piece. The Mendez character also has suspiciously little to say, rendering him almost mute and one dimensional. We can tell he is a renegade who will disobey orders to get the job done and save the day – who else would a top-flight movie start want to portray?
Perhaps he was mistaking moribund for macho, so the film and leading man only ever roar into life when the top-flight supporting players walk in. Thank heavens for the hilarious Arkin as quick-to-quip Hollywood producer Lester Siegel and Oscar winning make-up maestro John Chambers. These two, armed to the high teeth with expletive strewn Hollywood wit, make a formidable comedic tag-team. They bite at the juicy one-liners that pepper the script with scene-chewing gusto. The plaudits go completely to them. Their frequent cry of “Argo fuck yourself” whenever annoyed is an inspired, smile producing addition.
Affleck fares better on the other side of the camera. Much better in fact. It’s worth noting that despite his huge success as a film star, he has had more artistic success with his work behind the scenes (an Oscar and Golden Globe for best screenplay, Good Will Hunting. His feature directorial debut Gone Baby Gone received good notices across the board) than in front of the lens (we’ll forget the large number of Razzie nominations for worst actor of the year). Despite the broad comedy deployed in the middle of the film (and arguably these are the better sequences. Affleck should try his hand at an outright comedy sometime), the opening embassy storm and later moments of the staff during their escape are staged for all the wound-up tension he could wring out of them. These are scenes made of an escalating, stomach-knotting suspense. Not scary, they play on the apprehension that comes from being completely out of your depth and having to hide in a cellar after dinner. Excellent intuition and understanding for a director that has an immediate effect on the audience.