Release Date: 9 November 2012 (UK)
Director: Ben Affleck
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
Screening Reviewed: UK Premiere (London Film Festival Accenture Gala Screening)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
At face value, you’d be forgiven for expecting Argo to be a fairly generic and standard Hollywood CIA/espionage thriller, freshly sprung from the conveyer belt of formulaic genre fare. Being based on true events lent it that extra dash of intrigue and clout, but was hardly a new or original prospect. Credit must go, first and foremost then, to director-star Ben Affleck who, after proving his directorial mettle with his impressive debut Gone Baby Gone and follow-up The Town, has crafted a movie that is anything but.
Part thriller, drama-documentary and sharp Hollywood satire, Argo follows the true story of a CIA agent embarking on a joint CIA-Canadian operation to rescue six American diplomatic workers out of revolutionary Iran in 1979. With political tensions regarding a deposed Iranian Shah reaching boiling point, Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US embassy to hold it’s workers hostage (a sequence which makes for a brilliantly tense and effective opening), capturing all save for 6 who managed to escape to the Canadian embassy nearby. Affleck plays real life CIA ‘Exfiltration’ specialist Tony Mendez as he assembled an unlikely mission involving a fake film shoot to mask a rescue effort for the 6 fugitives, co-ordinating with the highest levels of both government and Hollywood in order to succeed.
Whilst the comedy is natural, causal and thankfully remains throughout, it is married with a underlying threat and tension that respects the truth and danger of the situation and bubbles away throughout, peaking at set pieces such as a nervous walk through an Iranian marketplace where Mendez and the six escapees must convince as Film Production personnel scouting for locations, and the brilliantly paced and masterfully intercut finale at an airport where the fate and lives of Mendez and company fall in the hands of both the Iranian guard and the CIA, government and even Hollywood officials back in the US. And for every moment of genuine character comedy gold - CIA officials squabbling like schoolchildren over ludicrous plans to bicycle the fugitives out of Iran (all 300 miles) - we have daunting moments of child labourers piecing together shredded photographs that are gradually revealing to the Iranian militia the idenitities of those they did not capture and are still in their country. It’s tense, gripping stuff that never feels the need to lean too heavily on scenes of violence or torture; here, the possibilities and dread of what could happen are far more terrifying and effective than any shlock display of torture or the like.
Affleck puts in an effective lead performance, his desire to complete his mission and rescue the fugitives sincere and believable, though in truth this interpretation of Tony Mendez is relatively stock and straight-forward. There is a somewhat rudimentary attempt to flesh out the character and his circumstance with a subplot concerning his estrangement from wife and son, but this feels both perfunctory and unnecessary, is left relatively under-written and contributes little to either the character or film as a whole. Far more compelling are the raft of supporting characters, from Bryan Cranston’s sardonic CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell through to John Goodman and Alan Arkin on show-stealing form, providing what may be their usual comedic shtick but nonetheless applied here in the perfect arena to do so - throwing barbs and chips at the Hollywood system and general industry bullshittery in the form of real-life director and make-up artist Lester Siegel and John Chambers respectively. Also noteworthy are the group of actors portraying the escapees, including the ever-reliable Tate Donovan and an empathetic and delicately subdued turn by Clea DuVall. The film provides light backstory and inter-relations amongst the group of 6, including the obligatory ‘unco-operative asshole who eventually comes good’ and whilst much of it is fairly slight and typical, Argo does a great job of achieving it’s most crucial goal - building the fugitives as a sympathetic core whom you genuinely do find yourselves rooting for.
There is little doubt that Argo is the recreation of a real life story as seen through the filter of Hollywood. With that being said, it is a film which does not rest on it’s laurels or rely on typical trickery and shock tactics to engage and hold audience attention. There is a notable lack of on-screen bloodshed or violence, confident as the film is in it’s story, plight and characters having the strength to invoke the thrills and edge-of-your-seat tension that makes it such a compelling view (courtesy of both Affleck's deft and astute direction and Terrio's slick, sharp script). Throw in the injection of humour and wonderfully self-referential Hollywood components, grounded as they are by being based on actual events, and a surprisingly celebratory, feel-good tone that rather than dwelling on any political overtones or commentary instead champions the spirit of camaraderie and co-operation, and you have Argo, one of the years most taut, engaging and surprising movies. With a three for three insofar as quality and attainment on his filmography so far, Affleck should start clearing some space on his mantle, because this is mainstream moviemaking at it’s finest, and will likely be receiving some due attention come Oscar season.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * (4 out of 5 Stars)
The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs in full from 10 - 21 October 2012 in partnership with American Express. Press Screenings for the festival began 24 September 2012. For more information on the festival please visit www.bfi.org.uk/lff