With tensions increasing in the Middle East as Iran comes ever closer to developing the bomb, this quite brilliant, witty political thriller seems very timely, despite being set over 30 years ago.
Argo, the latest from one-time Hollywood poster boy/laughing stock Ben Affleck, now a respected director of punchy, entertaining if until now slight films, tells the so-improbable-it-must-be-true tale of a CIA operation to evacuate six American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis of ’79-’81 by pretending they are members of a science fiction film crew. In its unlikely fusion of genres, the film manages to lampoon the audacity of Hollywood while also racking up the tension as the crisis escalates.
Affleck himself plays CIA consultant Tony Mendez, a so-called “Moses”, whose expertise is in extracting American civilians from international hotspots. During the crisis which follows the Iranian Revolution, six of the staff members at the American Embassy in Tehran escape the embassy, the centre of the crisis, and hole up in the residence of the Canadian ambassador to Iran.
With no hope of smuggling them across the border into Turkey, Mendez comes up with the plan of sneaking them out in broad daylight through Tehran’s airport, by coaching them to pose as a Canadian film crew doing a reccy in “exotic locations” for a sci-fi B-movie, called “Argo”. To sell the deception, Mendez teams up with (fictional) one-time Hollywood big leaguer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and real-life Oscar-winning make-up effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who worked on Planet of the Apes and the original Star Trek series. Hosting gala events in service of their Star Wars knock-off (which most closely resembles 1980’s Flash Gordon movie), the trio land an ad for Argo in Variety and generate buzz for the fraudulent film. All that has to be done then is for the terrified embassy staff to keep their nerve.
Full of punchy one-liners, especially from Goodman, Arkin and Bryan Cranston as CIA boss Jack O’Donnell, Argo’s script jets along at a very enjoyable pace before its nerve-wracking finale. Editing tricks cut between the film and documentary footage to emphasise the remarkable reality that lies behind the story. The almost excessive period detail, shot in bright ’70s colours, sells the movie to its audience even better than Mendez sells his film to the Iranians.
Acting is mostly solid across the board, although Affleck is perhaps not the strongest actor who might have fronted it, and he fluffs some of his best lines. Goodman and Arkin have remarkable fun as the pair who see through the “bullshit business” while also doing remarkable pro bono work for their endangered countrymen. Cranston, so hot right now it burns the eyes, has a strong go at the “disapproving chief who’s actually incredibly proud of his renegade underling” role, and it’s a treat to behold. The rest of the exhaustive cast is assembled from some of the best TV and movie character actors out there; Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver… the list goes on and on.
What the film does that no amount of perusing declassified State Department documents can do is truly get at the heart of the movie business, and give it a deserved ribbing. From the moment the film opens with the red Warner Bros logo from the 1970s, you can tell this is a film gleefully in love with a different age of moviemaking. Much of the opening preamble, bringing clueless audiences up to speed on the history of Iran (think Persepolis, but less sweet), is explained using storyboards. When Mendez reaches Hollywood, the hokey sets, ridiculous costumes and obnoxious self-promoters seem far more alien than Iran itself.
While Iran is the villain of the piece, so to speak, Argo is not overly critical of the nation, refusing to demonise it as it underlines the need for change that resulted in the Iranian Revolution. Using Istanbul as its shooting location, it paints the country as one of massive contradiction, where US flags are burnt while Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants are found on the high street.
Despite its energy, Argo slumps a little in the middle, as it struggles to define the characters of the six refugees, who are even more over-shadowed by the titanic performances of Arkin and Goodman than Affleck is. As the nail-biting finale approaches, the film blatantly goes beyond the real history and artificially raises the tension without any need. Yes, it’s intense, but for the only brief moment in its two-hour run-time this impossible story becomes unbelievable.
Affleck’s finest film to date, Argo is an endlessly witty, powerful and thrilling drama. With skilful craft in recreating an age almost out of memory, it has a unique honesty to it that is far more interested in the individual figures involved than flag-waving patriotism. A spy movie without guns or sex, Argo is nothing less than a ridiculous adventure with fine, clever characters and a fist-chewing climax like few others.
Be sure to stick around during the closing credits where actual photos from the real-life Argo exodus are placed side-by-side with images from the film. It is a final testament to the remarkable work Affleck and his team put into telling this story.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)