Verdict: Four out of five stars. Ben Affleck has truly come into his own as a director with a film that is part spy thriller, part black comedy, part history lesson. Deeply moving and very funny too, the excellent cast and Affleck’s confident directing makes Argo a must see.
“This is the best bad idea we have, sir,” says CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) to incredulous looks from his bosses. Circa 1979: six American diplomats are hiding at the Canadian ambassador’s home in Tehran, after the US embassy is overrun by Iranian militants. To get them out of the country, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) concocts an outlandish scheme – the six will escape Iran by posing as Canadian film crew for a fake movie named Argo.
This is Argo, a smooth, confidently directed film by Affleck, based on a hitherto unknown story that emerged from the 444 day Iranian hostage crisis (1979-80). If it all sounds too bizarre to be true, just consider that once upon a time, the words “smooth”, ”confidently directed” and “Ben Affleck” would never have belonged in the same sentence. Instead, the former half of the now defunct celebrity duo known as Bennifer has delivered a moving, funny and educational tale in his third directorial outing.
The movie starts with an overview of Iranian history and American involvement in the country from the 1950s, through a combination of story boards, black and white documentary footage and an almost resigned voiceover. It is a beautiful rendition of blowback: the consequences of decades of misguided American foreign policy in the Middle East, which are still being felt today.
The chaos of the day when the US embassy falls is expertly choreographed, with diplomatic staff hurriedly burning classified material as the compound is overrun. But the story really starts to heat up when it comes to the tale of the film within the film. Walter White a.k.a. Cranston cleans up his act here as a buttoned down bureaucrat, and is easily the best of an excellent supporting cast. “(President) Carter’s shitting enough bricks to build the pyramids,” growls O’Donnell. Disappointingly, he doesn’t follow up by pulling out a revolver and shooting the president in the head.
After playing the lead in The Town (2011), Affleck casts himself in a less showy role this time as the strong and silent Mendez, estranged from his wife and worried for his young son. As if to emphasise the meta-narrative, he is also the ‘director’ of the scheme to rescue the six stranded diplomats. At one point, Mendez even says to them: ”All right, let’s go make a movie.”
The story easily transitions from the gnawing tension and near panic of the Americans in hiding to the smoke-filled corridors of Langley to the shallowness of Hollywood. There is also a strong vein of black humor throughout the film, especially when Tinseltown comes into play. ”If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” declares producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). John Goodman is another standout as real-life make-up artist and Oscar-winner John Chambers, with some choice zingers. “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.”
This is a Hollywood movie, so it has more than its fair share of historical inaccuracies. Critics have already complained that the movie glorifies the Americans at the expense of the Canadians, who apparently played a far bigger role in the rescue op than is portrayed on film. Several situations in Argo were also invented for dramatic purposes. David Haglund of the online magazine Slate provides a more detailed analysis of fact vs fiction in Argo here.
But taken on its own merits, Argo is a superbly directed movie by Affleck, and easily one of the best films of 2012.