Review first published 10/11/12
1980… and in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian revolution, six fugitive diplomatic personnel have fled to the protection of the Canadian Embassy. Their only hope of rescue – a joint CIA/Canadian operation which hinges around CIA field operative Tony Mendez and a fake science fiction film called “Argo”.
Two years after directing the acclaimed film “The Town”, Ben Affleck returns to the director’s chair for this dramatisation of a real life incident which got declassified under the Clinton administration.
The script, written Chris Terrio, based on an article by Joshuah Bearman and Mendez’s own book “The Master of Disguise”, ticks all the boxes of a tautly written thriller – characters in peril, an improbable mission with very little hope of success and the “ticking clock” of the Iranian revolutionary army seeking out the American personnel.
What it also does is that it manages to tell a well written political thriller without demonising a single party involved. This is done by balancing the actions shown as being taken by the Iranian people through the use of a prologue which explains the background to the revolution by way of movie storyboards including the original coup d’etat to install the Shah, plus explaining the reasons why the Iranian people rose up in 1979 – basically maltreatment by the Shah’s ruling regime.
Affleck is a very busy participant in the making of this film as not only is he the lead actor, but director and producer alongside fellow Hollywood A-Lister George Clooney.
Behind the camera, Affleck effectively steers the script by using the fact that Mendez is in a race against time, not only against the Iranian army finding the diplomatic staff but also his own superiors in the American government who set a deadline for him to prove the validity of his mission. In addition to this, he makes some great choices in highlighting the claustrophobic nature of the diplomatic staff’s plight which is echoed later whilst he takes the Americans on a fake location scout. He also counterpoints what is taking place in the preparation of the mission alongside proclamations being made by representatives for the revolutionary army about the potential fate of the US Embassy’s diplomatic staff who were being held hostage – most significantly during a scene where the “cast” of the production deliver a read through for the benefit of the entertainment press.
In front of the camera, he delivers a sure footed performance in the role of Mendez. Whereas in a lot of films of this nature, the lead will be found more than likely shouting about the mission succeeding or failing, Affleck portrays Mendez as a man who has quiet confidence and resourcefulness in his own abilities – especially when he has to work with Hollywood to make a convincing “Front” production for the mission.
He is supported by three actors who could be in line for nominations for supporting actor gongs come awards time.
Bryan Cranston, currently tearing up the small screen in “Breaking Bad”, provides a powerful performance in the role of Mendez’s supervisor Jack O’Donnell. Like Affleck, the majority of his performance is one of quiet determination, but Cranston also convinces when he changes the tack of the character as somebody who uses anger and frustration to get things done – a key scene being when the US Department of State removes approval for the mission the day before it is due to take place. However, even he could be outshone by the two actors portraying the main Hollywood element of the story.
John Goodman portrays John Chambers a make-up artist who assisted the CIA (as well as designing Mr Spock’s pointy ears for “Star Trek” and the prosthetics for the original series of “Apes” films). Goodman gives an appropriately pitched performance in the role of Chambers – discreet enough to convince that he is somebody who has a loose role in the intelligence community but flamboyant enough to be a man who knows his way around the Hollywood community.
Flamboyant is the key to Alan Arkin’s performance in the role of film producer Lester Siegel as he portrays a man who has to ensure that the “Front” of the fictional film production has the ability to convince the Iranian authorities (as he tells Mendez, “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.”)
The four main cast members have a very strong supporting cast to underpin them including Bob Gunton (“The Shawshank Redemption”), Victor Garber (“Titanic”), Philip Baker Hall (“50/50”, “Zodiac” and one of this week’s other releases in the UK, “People Like Us”), Chris Messina (“Julie & Julia”, “Ruby Sparks”), Kyle Chandler (“Super 8”) and Tate Donovan.
You could be blamed for thinking over the last few weeks that films involving the world of espionage requires explosions, gadgets, grand gestures and vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred). However, “Argo” treads the path of last year’s hit movie “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in presenting a convincing world which doesn’t deal in absolutes but in the murky grey area of intelligence work where there isn’t grandiose villains or heroic men of action but of ordinary people in extraordinary situations.
This film has, and I’m sorry to use this phrase, “Oscar Bait” running through it and if the film doesn’t take away an award for Best Picture and/or Best Director, then I hope it’s because there is a better film coming up because this film does have the credentials to be up at the “Top Table” come Academy Awards night.