At a time when James Bond is wowing critics and cinema-goers alike with flashy set-piece stunts, pyrotechnics, and slick sexy Hollywoodness, Ben Affleck’s Argo is a far more low key offering in the spy thriller genre. Nevertheless it is a triumphant piece of film entertainment that will attract strong audience figures, and adds to the body of work that demonstrates Affleck is far more accomplished behind the camera than in front of it. On this occasion he’s on both sides of the lens, but his usually two-dimensional acting takes away very little from the excellent end product on this occasion. Indeed it’s likely that Argo will at least be on the long-lists come Oscars season.
While undoubtedly a Hollywood movie, Argo looks and feels much more like independent film, which is of great benefit to all concerned. Authenticity, grit and tension seeps from every pore this film has.
Based on the true-life events of the US-Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-81, Argo tells of how a handful of Embassy staff in Tehran made their bid for freedom as the site is overrun by protesters loyal to the Islamic Revolution and the Ayatollahs. Six Americans make it out and hole up in the Canadian Embassy for months on end. Meanwhile, in Washington DC, plans to extract them are all woefully inadequate, and it seems like no way can be figured out to get them home alive.
Enter Antonio Mendez (Ben Affleck), CIA exfiltration expert, and his Star Wars-inspired plan. His scheme is to create fake identities for himself and the six hidden staff as naïve Canadian filmmakers on a location-scout expedition for the titular fake movie. Hollywood big-wigs are brought on board to make the plan seem legit, and with President Carter’s green light, wheels are set in motion on a highly unlikely and audacious bid – “the best bad idea we have” – to bring the six home.
The real-life secret files upon which Chris Terrio’s screenplay is based were made public in 1997 under President Clinton, so for those who already like to read about true-life thriller tales, the ending may come as no surprise. They may also note that there is a LOT of artistic license taken with the events in order to fulfil the modern Hollywood criteria of throwing new twists into the plot and speed-bumps in the way of the lead characters. But, assuming that one suspends disbelief and enjoysArgo as a regular spy thriller with a little truth thrown in from its back-story, it is easy to forgive and, indeed, forget that this is the case.
Affleck, with his director’s hat on, cleverly engineers the successful introduction of such huge fictional additions by making the film feel deeply serious, convincing us that this all really went down. Iconic images from the Iranian revolution are recreated, such as driving past men hung from cranes in the street, in order to lend their harrowing truths to the tale, and comic moments in LA are underlined by crosscutting scenes of disturbing mental torture in Tehran. This all helps to create a thoroughly believable atmosphere – you can practically smell the unfiltered cigarettes, stale sweat, and moustache oil. The momentum built by the Affleck’s talented direction makes for a wonderful building up of gritty tension that reaches its climax at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, as the six hostages plus Mendez bid to make it out alive.
If you insist that your “based on real events” films are as authentic as possible, you’ll hate Argo. If you just want two good hours of tension and Ben Affleck with a cool (and strangely sexy) beard, you’ll want to see this film. Pro tip – stay in your seat while the credits roll and you’ll hear President Jimmy Carter’s recollection of the real Argo.