A thrilling and fascinating chapter of US-Iranian relations serves as Ben Affleck’s third directorial outing, proving his prowess both behind and in front of the camera.
As America sat glued to Iran hostage crisis, in which 52 Americans from the American Embassy in Tehran were held hostage for 444 days, another drama played out behind the scenes. The so-called “Canadian Caper” saw the rescue of six US citizens who had taken refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s residence (played in the film by Victor Garber), remarkably using an elaborate cover story of a Hollywood production to get their people out. Based in part on the memoirs of CIA disguise and exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, Argo follows the acclaimed films Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010) from director Ben Affleck, rapidly ensuring that his days of being known as the actor from Reindeer Games, Gigli and Surviving Christmas are well and truly over.
Following the incident at the US embassy, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) assesses all of the CIA’s extraction plans as completely unrealistic. After catching Battle for the Planet of the Apes, where all good ideas are born, he strikes upon the idea of using a Hollywood science-fiction film as an excuse to enter the troubled region. With the help of Oscar winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), he convinces Tinsel Town that he is making a giant Star Wars inspired film, set in the exotic locales in and around Tehran. The harder part is making the Iranian officials believe in that same story.
From the unlikely (but almost entirely true) events that inspired the film comes a taut and thrilling drama that plays on audience expectations of spy thrillers. Affleck’s strengths as a filmmaker have always been in crafting character-based pieces, from his screenplay for Good Will Hunting (1997) through to heist film The Town. With Argo, he gives himself the plum role of Mendez, a slick operator who doesn’t allow himself to doubt his own cover story for a moment. Yet he also wisely chooses to surround himself with equally talented supporting players, working together seamlessly as an ensemble. The inspired casting of the previously underused Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishé as just some of the Canadian six is a welcome mix of approximately familiar faces and new stars, creating the believable intimacy necessary to sell the urgency of their plight.
It’s through the cast that Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio also manages to deliver some often hilarious moments as well, never playing down to the audience. Much of the humour comes from the interplay between Goodman and particularly Alan Arkin, with the oft repeated refrain of “Argo fuck yourself” serving as something of a battle cry for this eclectic group. Numerous film references pepper the piece, and the irony of the dilapidated Hollywood sign crumbling over the hills of Los Angeles isn’t lost on anybody.
Shot with the rapid proximity of handheld, Argo is nothing less than compelling at every turn. Affleck deftly spins a tale of a mismatched group of people every bit as powerful as The Town, and indeed exceeding his previous efforts with a heartfelt exploration of a tense political situation that still has ramifications to this day. While minor issues of historical inaccuracy may mar the over overall impact of the film upon closer exploration, particularly the opening monologue and the heavy emphasis on the US involvement in the “Canadian Caper”, this does little to diminish the impact of this award-worthy film.
Argo is released in Australia on 25 October 2012 from Roadshow Films.