A political thriller, a heist movie, or even a film about cinema, whichever way you look at it, Argo is awesome. Directed and starring Ben Affleck, Argo is a proper film filled with real style and pulsating with tension.
Based on a true (and little known) story, Argo does a remarkable job in its opening five minutes to contextualise itself into the world of 1979-80 Iranian-American relations. It seamlessly interweaves archival footage to explain the tense diplomatic backdrop, leading to a group of Iranian revolutionaries taking over the US embassy in Tehran. Immediate panic and realisation sets in from the American diplomats and already it’s edge of the seat stuff. They’re getting in. We’re under siege. Burn everything. Most of the staff are taken as hostages but six manage to escape to the Canadian Ambassador’s house to take refuge. If they get found out then it’s a public hanging, but in the meantime they find themselves trapped in the walls of the Ambassador’s residence leading lives reminiscent of Anne Frank. The US State Department search for ways to ‘exfiltrate’ them from the hostile and (justifiably) anti-American state. Could we pretend they’re ‘Canadian’ school teachers? Or members of some sort of NGO? For well explained reasons, none of these solutions fit a reasonable cover. Whilst CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) is watching Battle For The Planet of the Apes he comes up with the idea to pretend they’re from a Canadian film crew scouting for locations for a tacky Star Wars rip off. To make it seem even slightly plausible, Hollywood must get involved to get this fake film in motion and preposterously achieve the incredible – to get Mendez in and out of the state with both his life and the six American lives and national pride intact.
Argo is not unlike Affleck’s previous directorial outing The Town through the way he streamlines his film into a train ride of tension. In Argo he really perfects his art. He does a seriously good job at underplaying its sentimentality and letting the film speak for itself (a particular problem for the end of The Town), trapping its audience in the mind of its characters without obliquely spelling out feelings. Mendez’s mission is beyond dangerous and his love for his son is evident through a couple small moments, but the film doesn’t ponder or over-dramatise or unnaturally elevate the intensity of its scenario – it gets on with it and his character speaks as much through actions as through words. The tension is utterly gripping throughout, no doubt helped by the fact I didn’t have a clue regarding the real life outcome but nevertheless, Argo understands the importance of building stakes and it doesn’t let go.
Affleck delivers perhaps his best performance, leading a cast oozing with talent. John Goodman plays the Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers, providing a jaded professional and adding some grit to the Hollywood world and preventing it from either feeling self-aggrandising or full of irritating winks. Alan Arkin adds a much needed light, albeit cynical touch to a film about Iranian hostage taking, playing a composite role based on several different real life film producers of the period. Then factor in Emmy winners Bryan Cranston and Kyle Chandler, the former who seems to be constantly popping up as serious military/political figures, this time doing a fantastic job as Affleck’s CIA contact. Affleck directs it all with a cool style that feels simultaneously dirty and slick, cementing himself as a man at the top of the game.
There are not going to be many tighter and more thrilling films than Argo this year, cutting out the crap and delivering big and boldly.
Review by David Rank
Argo is out now in the US and out of 7th November in the UK. Certificate 15 (UK). Running time 120 mins.
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