Until recently, Ben Affleck was regarded as something of a joke in Hollywood. His acting was heavily criticised and his production and writing work was lamentable. But that is certainly no longer the case. ‘The Town’ really brought Affleck into the inner circle in terms of both acting and directing, but it is his work on ‘Argo’ which enabled Affleck to be recognised as a truly talented creator of film. I watched ‘Argo’ for the first time just the other day, and my only regret is that I didn’t watch it sooner. As you will gather from the review which follows, it is very easy to see why this film won three Oscars, including the coveted Best Picture award.
Based on true events, ‘Argo’ takes us back to 1979, the American Embassy in Iran is invaded by revolutionaries and all but six hostages are captured. These six men and women manage to escape to the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. The CIA frantically tries to muster up a plan to retrieve the six hostages, consulting exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck). Tony suggests an ambitious plot to pose as the producer of an upcoming sci-fi movie, with the six hostages acting as his film crew, on a location scouting trip to Iran. Tony Mendez enlists the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a backstory for the movie and generate a media buzz, to authenticate the film as a guise for the planned hostage escape. This fake movie needs to be so believable that it fools not just Iranian security, but the whole world, as political strategy threatens to undermine the rescue effort.
Ben Affleck is commanding and confident at the head of the cast, so much so that he is almost the solo star of the film. Indeed, he is the biggest name to stick around for the majority of the film. The charisma and leadership of his character Tony Mendez is brilliantly portrayed by Affleck, but nothing shines more than the intense and emotive scenes he delivers in the climax of the film. Alan Arkin was Oscar-nominated for his support role as Lester Siegel, and deservedly so. A passionate performance is balanced alongside moments of humour, which make Arkin’s relatively small role one of the standout displays in an already stellar showing from all involved. ‘Breaking Bad’ star Bryan Cranston offers more exceptional support as the man caught in the middle of political tactics, Jack O’Donnell, who has to protect the interests of the hostages and his friend Tony, whilst maintaining the integrity of the USA’s overseas actions. I was worried that he might slip away from the action early on, as he does in ‘Godzilla’, but my patience was rewarded with an assured performance amongst the frenzy and chaos in the latter scenes. I have to also mention an actor who I am fast-becoming a fan of, Scoot McNairy, who steps up out of nowhere with an impressive, little display in the airport, look out for it.
The use of genuine handheld camera footage helps to add to the powerful, hard-hitting messages the film carries and evokes the sensation of viewing a live footage documentary. The way the film is shot and edited throughout is a real triumph, culminating in the Academy Award for editing which could not be more deserved. This is particularly true in the incredibly intense combination of scenes of the firing squad, set to the backdrop of a script reading for the fake movie. Exceptional close-up shots, arc shots and of course the handheld footage, all contribute to the claustrophobic, aggressive nature of riot scenes and suspense-filled moments of tension. The manner in which the narrative is drawn out, where events are played out so slowly and dramatically, only serves to create a heart-stopping suspense to every scene which left me watching with baited breath.
The tensions of terrorism, revolution and Middle Eastern hostility still resonate just as strongly today as they did in 1980, giving ‘Argo’ a hauntingly authentic feel. The knowledge that these are true events builds an air of credibility and emotional attachment to the story, and though being “based on true events” allows for certain dramatic license, this is nonetheless a very real, very thrilling drama. ‘Argo’ is a gripping, captivating film of subtle brilliance and extraordinary intensity which, thankfully for my health, delivered a happy ending after enduring such an emotional ordeal.
DIRECTOR: BEN AFFLECK
STARRING: BEN AFFLECK, ALAN ARKIN, BRYAN CRANSTON, JOHN GOODMAN