RUNNING TIME: 120 mins
REVIEWED DY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Militants storm the US embassy in Tehrain on November 4, 1979, in retaliation for the country’s support of the recently deposed Shah. Although most of the embassy staff are taken as hostages, six evade capture and hide in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. With the escapees’ situation kept secret, the State Department begins to explore options for “exfiltrating” them from Iran. CIA specialist Tony Mendez, brought in for consultation, points out the fundamental weaknesses in all of the proposals for how to do so, but is at a loss to suggest an alternative until he gets an idea while watching Battle For The Planet Of The Apes on TV with his son: create a cover story that the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting exotic locations in Iran for a similar film….
There was a time when Ben Affleck had become a bit of a laughing stock with his abysmal performances in film like Gigli and Pearl Harbour [and this is coming from someone who likes Pearl Harbour]. He started to appear in more and more films where he showed clear awareness of this, but it was behind the camera where he began to surprise us. With Gone Baby Gone and The Town he revealed he had considerable talent as both a director and a writer. Affleck did not have much to do with the script of Argo, but it is another fine achievement and for me is his best directorial effort yet. The premise of an attempt by the CIA to rescue some people trapped in Iran sounds like something Chuck Norris and his ilk would have been in back in the 80’s, while the idea that the rescuers are pretending to be folk who are making a science fiction Star Wars rip-off could also lead one to believe the film is a John Landis-style farce. However, the events depicted in the film are true, bar the odd alteration, omission or elaboration for drama [most notably towards the end], so Affleck and writer Chris Terrio, based on an article by Joshuah Bearman, decided the right thing to do was do the story in a realistic manner.
And well….It works. You really feel you are there, so convincing is everything, but the movie is thoroughly entertaining too, though more for adults than kids or teenagers who just want car chases and explosions every fifteen minutes. I should reiterate that this is not an action movie; there are some guns fired but nothing in the way of shoot-outs, fights etc. However, so absorbing and gripping is the film that it just doesn’t need them, yet it is in no way a deadly sober, ‘worthy’ drama, it is also packed with humour, the sort of humour that doesn’t drown out the seriousness but somehow adds to it because it makes us like these people even more and desperately want their plan to succeed. Of course the fact that this is based on true events will mean that many will know how things pan out, but I don’t think everyone will, so I won’t give it away!
The beginning of the film does a superb job of giving, via a combination of drawings, photographs and real footage, those not ‘in the know’ the background to the events that we are about to see. As I watched, I was reminded again of how many people who were saying how wonderful the ‘Arab Spring’ was going to be obviously didn’t think of what happened in Iran in 1979, when the dreadful Shah was deposed and the just-as-dreadful [or even worse] Ayatollah Khomeini replaced him, but that’s enough of politics, which is something that scriptwriter Chris Terrio mostly avoids wading into. The early scenes give a vivid impression of the uprising, mixing staged action with what looks like real shots, though maybe they weren’t real; it’s hard to tell, but it sure works. What doesn’t work so well is some irritating shakycam and one-second edits – come on, Ben, you’re better than this crap that most action directors seem obliged to do, and I really got sore eyes this time, but the sequence is soon over, and a sensation of the total chaos is certainly conveyed, so let’s forgive this for now shall we?
We switch to the CIA and then Hollywood, and it takes half the film for the mission to get underway, but you’ll probably be so entertained that you won’t even notice. As we witness the attempts to get this fake science-fiction film off the ground, there is a healthily cynical attitude to Hollywood, the place and business where everyone lies and the press can always be quickly leant on to spin something. It’s such fun watching and listening to the concepts for the film Argo, especially a party where people walk about dressed as often familiar variations on characters that we know [there’s what looks like a blue Chewbacca], though I couldn’t help looking at the cool movie posters on the walls [and cult movie fans look out for Adrienne Barbeau, who doesn’t seem to have changed much]. Affleck even gets away with a potentially awkward sequence where footage of hostages being executed in Iran is intercut with cast members of movie cast members at a table reciting the script, which seems to be full of cloth-eared dialogue in the George Lucas manner [yes, I love Star Wars, but the dialogue is often pretty bad, you have to admit!]. The light hearted elements never jar with the seriousness of the situation, and once our would-be rescuers arrive in Iraq, even though there’s more talk than movement for quite a while, the suspense increases and increases until we get to the climactic scenes which are as edge-of-seat as you can imagine. I could describe them, and you may think they don’t sound like much, but honestly, I was totally gripped even though I knew the ending. A touch of schmaltz in the final scene is therefore entirely justified.
This film has one of the best scripts in ages, especially with the way Terrio packs it with funny lines. There are more laugh-out-loud bits than in most actual ‘comedies’ that have come out this year, and many of them are delivered by the always fantastic Alan Arkin, who can always be relied on to make something mildly amusing sound hysterical. Look out in particular lines involving bicycles, John Wayne and the Muppets! I could have done with more scenes involving the people intended to be rescued, people who I didn’t feel I knew as much as I ought to have, and Affleck can’t resist casting himself in the lead role [as a Latino, though he makes no effort to sound like one!] though truth be told he’s not as bad as usual, even if he still thinks staring into space indicates that his character is thinking. No complaints about his direction though [well, except for the beginning!] which shows a considerable grip of film craft while never being showy apart from a few bits where wild camera pans are used to help convey the tense atmosphere.
The score by Alexandre Desplat compliments the film very well. If I have one major criticism about this film, it’s that it virtually ignores the wider picture which has direct links to what is still going on these days in the Middle East. Though undoubtedly a huge deal to those who were involved, it was a small part of a huge situation, and the film doesn’t care to give much context apart from at the very beginning. It seems a little dishonest, but then the filmmakers wanted to avoid being controversial anyway, so maybe it was a good idea! Overall, this is a fine picture that performs a good balancing act and actually could so easily have gone wrong. And, though it looks more Starcrash than Star Wars, I would pay to see Argo the science fiction film. I wonder if there’s a copy of the script that wasn’t destroyed….