Posted May 9, 2012 by David Watson in Films
 
 

Argo


Based on a true story. No five words are

as guaranteed to strike terror into the hearts of filmgoers as based on a true story. You know that the film you’re about to

see will be ponderous, worthy, that it’ll stick fairly close to the facts.

 

Here and there a name may be changed to protect the innocent

(or the guilty), liberties will be taken with the script to increase dramatic

tension (the complete lack of any bridges in Braveheart’s depiction of the Battle of Stirling Bridge say) and a

better looking actor is always cast in the starring role because, let’s face

it, we’re a shallow bunch and Warren

Beatty and Faye Dunaway are a

lot easier on the eye than the real Bonnie

and Clyde were. Similarly, Salma Hayek rocked a monobrow as Frida Kahlo, Michael ‘Python’ Fassbender

brought some sexy back to IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and no-one quite dribbles like Daniel Day Lewis.

 

Every so often a film will come along that’s a little more

unconventional, a Bronson or a Chopper, but most films based on a true

story are deadly dull thrill-free affairs. It’s hard to get too worked up about the fate of Tom Hanks and his fellow space monkeys

in Apollo 13 when we know they all

made it home safely while the leaden The

King’s Speech managed to reduce one of the darkest moments of the Twentieth

Century, Britain’s declaration of war and the start of World War 2, the

deadliest conflict in human history, into a feel-good romp about an emotionally

constipated, posho f*cktard overcoming his stutter with the help of Les

Patterson. It’s almost a miracle

then that director/star Ben Affleck

has managed to craft the most nail-biting piece of cinema of the year from a

minor episode during 1979’s 444-day long Iran Hostage Crisis which ultimately

saw incumbent President Jimmy Carter lose office to a victorious Ronald Reagan

and sowed the seeds of 30 years of enmity between the US and Iran.

 

On November 4th 1979, at the height of Iran’s

Islamic Revolution which swept the Ayatollah Khomeini to power, militants storm

the US Embassy in Tehran, taking hostage 52 Americans and demanding the return

for trial of the US-backed, despotic former leader, the Shah. But six embassy employees manage to

escape, finding refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber). With it just a matter of time before

the six are found and (probably) executed by the militants, it’s up to CIA

exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben

Affleck) to get them out of the country safely.

 

Recruiting Oscar winning make-up effects artist

John Chambers (John Goodman) and

veteran film producer Lester Seigel (Alan

Arkin), Mendez comes up with a plan so crazy it just might work: they’ll

create a fake Star Wars-style sci-fi

B-movie called Argo as cover,

complete with script, production office, storyboards and phony adverts in

magazines like Variety with Mendez as producer. As Chambers so eloquently puts

it: “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot

without actually doing anything?

You’ll fit right in!”

Cover story in place, Mendez will fly into Tehran on a recce looking for

exotic locations and then he’ll smuggle the escapees out as phony Canadian

members of his fake production team (screenwriter, cameraman, director, etc.).

 

But with the Iranian Security Forces closing in and the

White House losing its nerve, can Mendez really get himself and the escaped

diplomats out of Iran alive?

 

Ben Affleck’s third film as director takes him away from his

native Boston (scene of previous outings Gone

Baby Gone and The Town) and sees

him putting his degree in Middle Eastern affairs to good use to deliver a

tight, economical, well-balanced, even-handed thriller that’s remarkably free

of Hollywood cliché even as it’s satirising the movie business. Shot with a blue and beige ‘70s feel by

Brokeback Mountain’s Rodrigo Prieto, Istanbul doubling for a

wintry Tehran, Argo may just be the

best American film of the year (yeah, you read that right, screw over-hyped

snoozefest The Master), Chris Terrio’s smart, funny script

effortlessly ratcheting up the tension, Affleck delivering a propulsive,

edge-of-the-seat piece of pure cinema that’s genuinely exciting and surprising

despite being based on a true story. With Skyfall currently setting the UK box office alight and being

anointed as Best Bond Ever™,

Affleck’s spy thriller is almost the anti-Bond, Affleck’s low-key, quietly

heroic Mendez trying to be as invisible as possible, outwitting and deceiving

his adversaries, while Daniel Craig’s

Bond is busy dodging crashing Tube trains, feeding baddies to Komodo dragons

and blowing up his Aston Martin while the fat lady (Adele) sings. Skyfall,

like it’s hero is a blunt instrument.

Argo is a far subtler beast;

an intense, increasingly claustrophobic, intelligent film about the intelligence

game.

 

His own performance quiet and unshowy, Affleck is

essentially the film’s straight man, the quiet centre around which everyone

else revolves. John Goodman and

Alan Arkin turn in terrific comic performances as the Hollywood movers and

shakers while Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston is excellent as Mendez’s

cynical boss and, both as a director and as an actor, Affleck is wise enough

not to try and upstage them, giving them the room to provide some much-needed

humour without ever undercutting the story. There’s also terrific ensemble work from Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan,

Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher

Denham and Kerry Bishé as the

beleagured diplomats suddenly offered hope after months of paranoia and fear,

the increasingly stellar McNairy possibly just edging out the others as the

whiny, sceptical group spokesman who doesn’t trust Affleck’s smooth spook. There’s also some fantastic supporting

performances from the cast’s facial hair, Affleck in particular sporting a

shaggy beard every man in the audience will envy.

 

While Affleck may

take a few liberties with the truth, particularly in a last-minute,

race-against-time climactic chase sequence, Argo remains a stunning, suspense-filled ride that somehow manages

to be as unexpectedly funny as it is nail-biting. Equal parts political thriller, Great Escape-style caper movie and biting Hollywood satire that if

there’s any justice will be rewarded handsomely come Oscar time. And if you don’t agree, as Arkin’s

Seigel is fond of saying: “Argo f*ck yourself!”


David Watson

 
David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com