Ben Affleck’s Argo, which he both directed and starred in, is one of the tensest thrillers to come out of Hollywood in recent years. It is based upon the true story, declassified by the Clinton administration in the late 1990s, of CIA agent Tony Mendez and his attempts to rescue six US embassy staff that were forced into hiding in Iran in 1980.
The film begins with a short animated history of Iran from post-World War II to the late 1970s, after the Iranian revolution and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. This is perhaps the first of many homages in the film (in this case to the excellent Persepolis). After the scene is set we see workers at the US embassy – whose nation has provided asylum for the deposed, dying Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – panic as their building is stormed by by Iranian revolutionaries. Most are taken hostage (a lengthy, drawn out crisis that is covered in Argo to an extent but lasted for over a year and was one factor that led to the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the start of Ronald Reagan’s).
However, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio’s story concentrates on six embassy staff that managed to leave the building as it was stormed. They eventually find their way to the house of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), who shelters them at great personal risk. (Sadly the film claims that the six workers were turned away by the British and New Zealand embassies, which is not actually true. They were housed by British diplomats before being moved to the Canadian residence as it was felt to be safer. Not only that, New Zealand staff put their lives on the line by driving during the attempted rescue. Facts seem to be less of a concern for modern Hollywood political films than perhaps they ought to be. Affleck stated, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph: “I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair. But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone.” Unfortunately that’s exactly what it does.) Meanwhile in Washington, CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) brings in exfiltration specialist Mendez (Affleck) who comes up with a plan to get the workers out of the country. Mendez will travel to Tehran using a fake Canadian passport, holding six other fake Canadian passports, and will pretend to be on a location scout for a made-up science fiction film / Star Wars rip-off called Argo. The intention is for the US workers to pretend to be part of the film crew before they all leave together on a Swissair flight back to neutral territory. As Jack amusingly tells his superiors: “This is the best bad idea we have, sir, by far.”
To lend some weight to the story, Mendez enlists the help of make-up/prosthetics expert John Chambers (John Goodman), who in real life worked on many films and TV shows, including Planet of the Apes, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. He also persuades movie mogul Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to back his scheme, and together they set up a cast, create storyboards, posters and hold a script reading for their fake film (duly reported on by Variety). Given the all-clear by the CIA, Mendez travels to Tehran in order to extract the six hidden Americans.
A while ago, while writing about The Artist, I made the point that there is nothing Hollywood likes better than an ego-stroking film about Hollywood, and the same point applies here. One could argue that it is somewhat fishy that both The Artist and Argo have now won the Best Picture Oscar at successive Academy Awards, but in both cases the films deserved their nominations. (It’s actually a surprise looking back that Titanic beat out LA Confidential (another film dealing in part with Hollywood) back in the late 1990s, though it makes perfect sense when you consider how readily the industry celebrates its cash-shitting epics. Though, in fairness, both Robert Altman’s The Player and Barry Levinson’s Wag The Dog were overlooked for Best Picture in the 1990s.) The funny thing about Argo is the fact that in this story the film industry is only of real, concrete use to the US government when it is backing a film that will never actually be made. Though the story appears to celebrate Hollywood’s usefulness, the director actually goes out of his way to show his disdain for the movie business, and has made an anti-Hollywood film. It’s no coincidence that Affleck chooses to show the dilapidated, half-broken version of the ‘Hollywood’ sign situated in the Hollywood Hills, even though the sign was actually repaired in 1978 and Argo is largely set in 1980. (And an interesting fact about that…the campaign to restore the sign to its former glory was led by Alice Cooper, who donated a missing ‘O’.) Later on, when the lives of Mendez and the embassy staff largely depend on Siegel and Chambers answering a phone call from the Iranian authorities, the two are obstructed when trying to cross a studio floor by the filming of a ridiculous-looking fight scene which is part of another movie. Lives may be at risk, but this industry carries on regardless and reality is an unwelcome intrusion. Both Siegel and Chambers are portrayed as jaded old-timers that have seen it all before, both grateful for the chance to be involved in a project that really is different to the norm. Their snappy one-liners support their seen-it-all-before demeanours superbly.
When Mendez arrives in Iran the tension is ramped up considerably, and much of the rest of the film tries to force you to the edge of your seat (and is very successful in doing so). There are gripping scenes as the crew are given a guided tour of Tehran’s Grand Bazaar and have to drive slowly through an angry ranting crowd. There are guns on the streets everywhere, and even the expert Mendez is surprised and disorientated by the volatile air (in one scene he is calmed for the briefest of seconds upon seeing something familiar from the inside of his car – a branch of KFC – but it feels like a desert mirage, and is gone in a second).
Affleck’s direction is superb, as is the editing by William Goldenberg (who won an Oscar, a BAFTA and many other awards for his work). The pace is excellent, the story is involving and crisply delivered, and the dialogue is snappy and very quotable. Though set in the 1970s, Argo also feels like a film made in the 1970s, a modern-day French Connection or All The President’s Men (hence Warner Bros using their 1972-84 logo to open the film). There’s no reliance on special effects, there are no twists and turns every fifteen minutes, and the heroism of the characters is downplayed throughout; as bizarre as the story is, these are all people that are just doing their jobs.
At one point Cranston’s character O’Donnell says to Mendez “Brace yourself; it’s like talking to those two old fucks from The Muppets” when they are about to meet with two CIA bigwigs. He may as well have been talking about Arkin and Goodman, who are superb as the crotchety, Waldorf and Statleresque quick-fire Hollywood pairing helping Mendez out. Affleck must have been tempted to include more scenes with them, such is their excellent chemistry (indeed, the same could be said for his own scenes with Cranston). That he didn’t certainly shows restraint; though I wanted to see more of both Arkin and Goodman, it’s to the overall benefit of the film’s tone and focus that they do not appear too often. In fact the supporting cast is very good throughout – those playing the six embassy workers and the Canadian household all help to carry the story along and convey the rising tension well as the Iranian net closes in on them.
Affleck is solid in a role that allows him to calmly, quietly carry the film. His Mendez is a 1970s hero, and is therefore not required to have fist fights with Iranian guards, leap from burning helicopters or deliver cheesy payoff lines. In fact there is no real ‘action’ to speak of; only tense, race-against-time scenes that increase in frequency throughout and truly manage to convey the level of danger these people were in. Their predicament is enough in its own right to drive the film’s plot, a fact the director and screenwriter wisely noted.
The film has been criticized for being overly jingoistic towards the end, a neocon fantasy that paints Iran and Iranians in a bad light, but I can’t really see why on either point. If anything it has all of its fun with two great American institutions, the CIA and Hollywood, rather than the Iranian revolution or the Iranian people. Tehran is pictured as a volatile, dangerous place to be, a tinderbox environment that would be frightening to any westerner that happened to be there at the end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s; but then plenty of news footage from the time is interwoven, and it looks decidedly similar to Affleck’s version of the city.
The main hostage crisis isn’t really covered in great detail, but this is about Mendez and he had nothing to do with that operation, so you can hardly level that as a criticism to the filmmaker. It may be a straightforward thriller, but Argo is one of the better ones of recent years: a gripping, immensely exciting and well-executed drama that is also, on occasion, bizarrely amusing. It may be a straightforward re-telling of history from the American and Canadian perspectives (with some notable emissions, as mentioned above) but it is a hugely entertaining work, well-acted, and it will surely stand up to repeated viewings in the future. Affleck has now made two fine films and a half-decent one: not a bad start to his directorial life by any means. He has also managed to get his acting career back on track here, and these twin achievements with Argo will long outlive the minor fuss caused by the snub for Best Director dished out by the Academy earlier this year.
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
Running Time: 120 Minutes