Argo (2012) ★★★★
Dir: Ben Affleck, US, 120mins
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
On paper Argo is a high concept Hollywood dream. It is the type of film studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) would have green lighted in The Player (1992). In Robert Altman’s droll satire we catch the end of a test screening for screenwriters Andy Civella (Dean Stockwell) and Tom Oakley’s (Richard E. Grant) opus, a worthy awards bait drama set on death row called Habeas Corpus. As prisoner Julia Roberts is gassed and all appears lost Bruce Willis’s attorney busts through in the nick of time. “What took you so long?” she asks. “Traffic was a bitch” he replies. Argo, thankfully, does not resort to ridiculous jumps in logic. It is based on a true story but with a premise so ludicrous it could have come straight out of La La land, which it did to an extent. Before I confuse matters any further let me explain.
Argo is based on what has become known popularly as the “Canadian Caper”, a CIA operation declassified during the Clinton era. In 1979 the US embassy in Tehran was raided by revolutionaries displeased by American asylum for corrupt Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Personnel were held hostage, a stand-off that lasted until early 1981. Six fled and took shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador. The CIA hatched a plan to get them out of the country but hit a wall on how to go about this in such a hostile atmosphere. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), an expert on such scenarios, who put forward the idea of location scouting for a film as cover, creating new identities and passports for those trapped. Given the all clear Tony heads off to Hollywood to hook up with make- up artist and old contact John Chambers (John Goodman) to find a script, the Star Wars (1977) rip off of the title, for this audacious hoax.
Affleck has stuck to his South Bostonian roots for previous efforts away from acting. He won an original screenplay Oscar with Matt Damon for Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997), where he also starred in a supporting capacity. Directorial forays Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010) were both Dennis Lehane adaptations also set in “Southie” as it is known to locals.
Moving outside this comfort zone he brilliantly conveys the anxiety of the situation. The taking of the embassy is shot in a loose, jagged cinema verite style, seamlessly mixed in with documentary footage, as the jostling crowd amass whilst inside a growing unease develops leading to a frenzy of document shredding. Scenes with the six are claustrophobic and as cabin fever sets in personalities clash. There is a genuine air of peril and despondency but also camaraderie. It is testament to the actors portraying these roles that they do so much with so little and give the audience an authentic interest to invest in. In fact so absorbing is this human drama that come the final airport scenes knowledge of the outcome is temporarily forgotten and displaced by a clammy, knife edge tension where all bets are off.
This is mainstream film-making and historical liberties are taken. The Canadian influence in organising the rescue mission is far greater than shown here. However, Argo does smartly nod to American meddling in the Middle East, adopting an apologetic stance. An animated introduction elegantly conducts a brief history lesson with, unsurprisingly, oil top of the agenda. This is not an overriding concern which sacrifices the films tempo. It doesn’t go into the detail of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), which shrewdly mapped out connections on a broader canvass. Accusations could be made that it resorts to the cliché of the “foreign other”, faceless hordes with no voice or characterisation, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) the most disturbing example. The airport guards are atypical of this but a brief scene at the finale demonstrates a greater understanding. Sahar (Sheila Vand), a house keeper aware of the Americans location, crosses the border to Iraq, cutting through western self congratulation.
On a lighter note Argo mines a keen satirical vein as Mendez embarks on setting up his fake picture. From creating a production company, taking out ads in trade press Variety and a script reading which brings out an exuberant array of sci-fi nuts, the absurdity of the industry is sent up with Mendez baffled in the background. Chambers brings in veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), actually a composite, who guides him through the process. Arkin has great fun with this grizzled role which reminded me of Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman, mimicking the legendary Robert Evans) in Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog (1997), also an industry satire with Motss asked to create a bogus war against Albania for presidential spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro). Arkin, Goodman and Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss head up a strong supporting cast, one with numerous faces you recognise but can’t quite put a name to.
The appearance of the 1970’s Warner Brother symbol at the start of this film is reassuring. Personally this evokes memories of Klute (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Night Moves (1975) and All the Presidents Men (1976), sharp, vibrant film-making from Alan J Pakula, Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn. Argo takes its cues from this era, although it would struggle for a place at the same table. This is pure entertainment but smart, considerate and a welcome anecdote to a dirge of summer blockbusters that generally flattered to deceive.