THE strange but true story of a CIA rescue in revolutionary Iran provides a platform for a riotous blend of action, documentary and even comedy
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, Tate Donovan
Star rating: * * * *
Part earnest prestige picture, part high-stakes thriller and part knockabout Hollywood satire, Ben Affleck’s terrifically entertaining new film Argo is a good example of how to make a serious movie fun and a fun movie serious.
Based on the true story of the CIA-sanctioned/Hollywood-aided rescue of six American State Department employees from Tehran in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, the film kicks into high gear almost from the off, with a swift context-setting history of US-Iranian relations giving way to a heart-in-mouth dramatic recreation of the Ayatollah Khomeini-sanctioned storming of the American Embassy on 4 November, 1979.
Amid the confusion, the fear and the frantic document shredding, six employees make a split-second decision to escape the building while they still can, only partially cognisant of the fact that if they’re caught on the streets they will have effectively signed their own death warrant. Taking refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador – while their colleagues begin what will eventually become a 444-day siege, during which the eyes of the world will be intently focused on their plight– they soon realise their only long-term chance of survival is to find a safe way out of the country without revealing their status as American citizens.
Enter CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck). Charged with bringing them home before an already disastrous diplomatic situation for president Jimmy Carter becomes an outright national tragedy, Mendez has to come up with a believable cover story to get them out of a dangerous country in which Westerners no longer have a valid reason to be there. His out-of-the-box plan? Have them pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars-inspired sci-fi epic entitled Argo. It’s a plan for which he needs Hollywood’s help to sell its credibility – as much to the CIA as to Iranian authorities and the stranded American citizens whose lives are going to depend on it working.
As original material for movies goes, Affleck – settling nicely into a directing career after impressing with Gone Baby Gone and The Town – has certainly landed on his feet. Not only does Argo – the film, not the fake film-within-the-film – afford him a convenient way to hop genres by cross-cutting between the pressure-cooker-like situation in Iran, the bureaucratic intransigence of Washington and the absurdities of Hollywood, it gives him legitimacy to bring some much needed levity to sombre and serious material without the results feeling glib.
Much of the film’s success in pulling this off is also down to Affleck’s ability to judge and control the tone through his fetishistic attention to period detail. From his opening use of a vintage Warner Bros logo, it’s almost as if he’s matching film stocks to facial hair in an effort to put us in the moment – both in terms of the real events being depicted (he takes great care to enhance the veracity of the film by using genuine newsreel footage as a template for his shot designs) and the style of movies being made at this time (he invokes the spirit of benchmark thrillers such as Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and The Conversation to ratchet up the tension). It’s a neat theme-enhancing trick: by subtly using the aesthetics of another era of Hollywood filmmaking, he instantly makes the otherwise preposterous-seeming story beats of this one seem more credible and authentic.
Indeed, so effective is the film at doing this that its willingness to function as a flat-out Hollywood movie in its own right almost goes unnoticed. It’s only once the film is over, for instance, that it becomes apparent how underserved the actors playing the hostages are; they’re barely defined by a script that gives them no distinguishing character traits.
Meanwhile Bryan Cranston’s string-pulling CIA operative and the double-act pairing of John Goodman (as real-life Oscar-winning effects artist John Chambers) and Alan Arkin (as a composite of several Hollywood producers) may be more prominent and memorable, but their collective ability to steal any and all scenes in which they appear is more down to sheer force of personality than any particular depth being furnished upon them by the writing.
Even Affleck, directing himself in the lead, seems reluctant to burrow too deeply into what drives Mendez, touching on the strain his job has had on his relationship with his son, but not doing much more with it.
He gets away with it, though, because the story is such a riot. Indeed even as the film starts to deviate substantially from real events courtesy of amped-up action sequences that externalise the palm-sweating fear the participants must have felt as they were making their getaway, it works well because of the groundwork laid early on – and because Argo is a film that can unashamedly celebrate Hollywood’s propensity for making stuff up.