Argo – Review

Argo – Review

Review by FilmFellaDarren – 8.5/10

Six years ago, announcing you were going to see the new Ben Affleck movie would have been met with howls of derisive laughter since Affleck had become the laughing stock of Hollywood after his well-documented and completely disastrous relationship with Jennifer Lopez caused him to become a tabloid figure of fun, and a string of absolute stinkers like Man About Town, Surviving Christmas and the unspeakably awful Gigi severely dented his reputation as an actor. He seemed washed up, but then, quite literally, he had a change in direction. Well, that’s Hollywoodland. His growing army of detractors anticipated his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, would provide further material for ridicule – eyebrows were raised when it turned out to be excellent.  Affleck’s remarkable reversal of fortunes continued when his second film, the taut and gripping heist drama The Town, showed further signs that he had hidden filmmaking talents. Now he is back with a third film – and a second in which he directs himself in the lead role – ready to silence his now diminishing crowd of critics by showing that the first two films were not beginner’s luck and he is indeed an accomplished filmmaker.

Argo sees Affleck really stretch himself as both an actor and director. His first two films were set in Boston Massachusetts – the state where he was raised. Arguably they were realistic as the director drew on his own knowledge of the area the stories were set.  He shows real ambition here as this fascinating true story takes place in various cities, stretching from locations as contrasting as Hollywood, to Washington DC, to the Middle East, and is largely set in Tehran, Iran , in a different time period – 1979 to be exact. Those factors would pose a challenge for even a seasoned director so it shows something of Affleck’s new found ambition as a filmmaker that he wasn’t daunted by such testing political subject matter.

After an opening montage that condenses the politics of Iran – essential for understanding the Iranian people’s depicted outrage – the film throws us into a political melee surrounding the U.S Embassy in Iran, as the Iranian people, undergoing a cultural revolution, threaten to storm the Embassy as the increasingly worried U.S diplomats inside fear for their safety. Six escape and they are forced to seek refuge in the house of The Canadian Ambassador. It’s only a matter of time until they are discovered by the Iranian military – who deem them America spies. Someone needs to devise a plan to get them out. That someone is the CIA’s Tony Mendes (Affleck) who proposes an audacious plan to rescue the six by posing as a film crew for a fake Science Fiction film. The chances of it being a success seem rather unlikely but the six have no option but to entrust their lives to this bold CIA operative.

This true story took place in 1979, but the tension between Iran and America that threatens to boil over in the film, has striking similarities to current political tension between the two nations. It gives perspective on how long and how deep the tension between the two nations has run. The opening scene, in which a U.S Embassy is besieged, Assault on Precinct 13 style, by wave upon wave of angry Iranians, as petrified U.S diplomats helplessly await their inevitable capture, is deeply uncomfortable to watch, particularly in the wake of what happened to the U.S ambassador for Libya, in the U.S Embassy this year, as well as the Middle Eastern furore that recently erupted over that anti-Islamic internet video. The opening scene and the film as a whole are disturbingly contentious; the scenes Affleck creates set in Iran give a startling impression of how terrifying it must be to be a diplomat in a country in which the native population have turned against the country you hail from. As you can imagine, such seriously sobering subject matter makes for gripping, uneasy, dramatic and suspenseful viewing. But if you are thinking that the film seems a little heavy going then you’d be wrong, as juxtaposing the scenes set in Iran, is the audacious plan Mendes devises as a last ditch to rescue the six. These scenes see top CIA operatives collaborating with Hollywood producers, charismatically played by John Goodman and the always fabulous Alan Arkin. Some punchy, funny, amusing, satirical and fascinating scenes ensue as the fake movie plan begins to come to fruition. The plan to create a fake movie as a cover to enable the six to exit Iran seems so audacious and contrived it seems borderline suicidal. Had the story been a work of fiction and not based on true events, you would dismiss the setup as incredulous, but as it actually happened you are inclined to go along with it.

This is a Hollywood movie that is a flagrant celebration of America heroism, and as such, you’d imagine there is a favourable result to this most outlandish of rescue plots. It’s a credit to Ben Affleck’s direction that the plot has a real feeling that it is utterly doomed, which in turn gives rise to a considerable amount of intense, nail biting tension as you wonder whether all will get out alive or face an Iranian death squad. The ending, although it quite obviously contains a fair amount of Hollywood dramatization, is absolutely thrilling.

A slight misstep would have caused the film to be tonally all of over the place, but Affleck gets the perfect balance, managing to get laughs and a lightness of tone to the fake movie setup which doesn’t detract from the gravity of the heated central crisis in the following scenes set in Iran. He gets the balance in tone right and that’s some achievement. The director finds an extraordinary amount of realism to bring to a plan that seems destined to end in an abysmal failure. Affleck has matured as a director; this is a remarkably assured film from him – expect to see his name on the best director Oscar shortlist next year.

The Affleck of old would have been a jarring presence in this film. No trace of his unlikable smugness remains; he’s obviously done some reflecting and had a bit of a reality check in regards to some of his ill-advised career choices. He seems more empathetic as an actor now. He gives Mendes a bruised, melancholic persona – due to a failed relationship resulting in him being estranged from his child – and a suitable world-weariness that makes him quite a sympathetic character.  His quiet confidence and understated attitude make his Tony Mendes a likable figure that you will to success. Plus he has an impressive beard and as we all know, a well groomed beard can give male actors a certain amount of credibility they might otherwise have lacked.

Argo is a suburb film – gripping throughout and rewarding in its entirety. It’s not without some flaws though. If you are an Iranian you might object to the portrayal of the people of Iran. Sure, the film takes place in a period when the Iranians were incensed, but there isn’t really a single Iranian character in the film who isn’t portrayed as an infuriated, shrieking, angry and dangerous figure. Iranian men women and children are all portrayed as sinister figures to be feared – Affleck gets plenty of drama and tension out of their portrayal but in the interest of balance, a more well-adjusted Iranian character would have been a welcomed addition.

The scenes set in the CIA headquarters have an interesting fly-on-the-wall style – they do a great job of putting a human face on such a secretive organization. This is a true story, albeit one with a certain amount of creative license, but what’s really captivating is that whilst you watch it you get the extraordinary sense that it must have been based on a recently declassified CIA case. Indeed it is – it was declassified in 1997. Given just how remarkable the Argo story is, you can’t help but wonder about what other extraordinary, true CIA stories are locked up in their vaults. What other classified CIA cases rest untapped? You come away from the film reflecting on the thrilling story, with a riveting sense of wonder about what other CIA stories will one day become classic American films. Argo is an excellent film and the thought of more spectacularly audacious CIA stories becoming motion pictures, is a thrilling prospect. If Affleck was attached to direct one, there wouldn’t be too many objections given the quality of this particular recently declassified CIA case turned film.

Redemption for Ben Affleck contains at a pace – he now stands alongside George Clooney and Clint Eastwood as one of the best actors turned directors currently working in the industry.

About Filmfella Darren
Film critic, writer and long-time cinema appreciator. I write about cinema matters, because cinema matters. Like your clothes and your laptops, my articles were made in Taiwan.

One Response to Argo – Review

  1. Thanks Darren – I quite liked the look of this from the film trailers in the cinema – I think you have now persuaded it me it’s worth a view! Maybe this week on Orange Wednesdy… Heather x

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