It’s frankly remarkable Argo has taken this long to reach the big screen – a film with a you-just-couldn’t-make-it-up storyline in which Hollywood comes out smelling of roses.
More than 50 Americans were held hostage for 444 days after Islamist protestors and militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979.
The story of their long ordeal has been well documented. What isn’t as well-known is the plight of six Americans who made it out of the country as a result of an extraordinary CIA plot led by operative Tony Mendez in which an elaborate cover story was hatched to pass the group off as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie called Argo.
It wasn’t until 1997 when President Bill Clinton declassified the CIA files that the story officially came to light and only now do we have the movie ‘based’ on Mendez’s historical account courtesy of actor/director Ben Affleck.
Much like Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), Argo adopts the look and feel of such classic 1970s nail-biters as Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), right down to the old Warner Bros logo at the front end of the movie and the use of old film stock to provide a suitably grainy look. Affleck also mixes things up with fast zooms, long lens shots and close-ups to crank up the tension.
The use of handheld cameras during the scenes in Iran give the action a confused, panicked quality that is effectively handled and works as a parallel to the comical exchanges between Mendez (Affleck), make-up artist and CIA contact John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) as they work against the clock to put flesh on Argo‘s bones.
This is most powerfully demonstrated during the scene when a speech given by a spokeswoman for the militants outlining to the world’s media their political position is intercut with a script reading of Argo featuring actors in ridiculous costumes.
In lesser hands you would have heard someone dramatically declare “it’s crazy, but it might … just … work”. However, Affleck has matured as a director since his admirable 2007 debut Gone Baby Gone and shown he can helm claustrophobic action in his follow-up The Town (2010).
Affleck makes emphatically clear the life or death stakes facing the group and the paranoia and queasiness that fear can exert. You get a very real sense that one false step by any of them will mean the game’s up for all.
That being said, the wheels begin to fall off somewhat in the film’s final third. Lest we forget, this is a Hollywood picture, and as the embassy staff and Mendez make their tortuous way through Tehran Airport it’s difficult not to feel like you’re being deceived just as much as the security guards.
That’s not to say Affleck doesn’t handle the group’s final escape well – it’s a masterful, pulse-quickening action sequence that pushes all the right buttons. But the contrivances of the plot (plane tickets being confirmed with seconds to spare and other moments I won’t spoil) are hard to swallow (in fact they’re plain inaccurate) and bring to mind the over-the-top denouement to the otherwise enjoyable The Last King of Scotland (2006).
With Iran having rarely been out of the news for the past few years, Argo‘s politics are inevitably going to be put under the spotlight. Affleck doesn’t let himself down here. While we’re under no illusion who the heroes of this tale are, from the opening sequence (filmed as a movie storyboard) where we get a short history lesson on the brutality of the Shah’s rule and the subsequent revolution that saw the birth of an Islamic republic, we are asked to understand the anger of the Iranian people and why the embassy was stormed. This is no Black Hawk Down (2001) with an implacable, faceless and one-dimensional enemy.
While Affleck won’t win any prizes for historical accuracy (what Hollywood film does?), Argo nevertheless stands on its feet as the kind of superior political thriller that all-too-rarely gets made in Tinseltown these days.