Director: Ben Affleck
Major players: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
Out of five? 5
Sunday, 4 November marks 33 years since the start of the Iran hostage crisis, when the US Embassy in Tehran was taken over by Iranian revolutionaries and the staff were held hostage for over 14 months.
Which makes the UK launch date for Ben Affleck’s Argo rather timely – just a few days afterwards, on Friday, 9 November. And the US release date of 12 October equally interesting: this wasn’t, after all, a great time for American national pride.
So it would have been all too easy for Affleck to make a jingoistic flag waver. But, from the start of Argo, he makes sure that we’re filled in on the run-up to the Iranian revolution – and why that country had no reason to like the Americans (or the British, for that matter).
Argo is based on the true (and de-classified) story of how six diplomats fled the US embassy just as it was taken over and took refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Back in Washington, crazy schemes to secure their escape are considered, until CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with the most crackpot of them all – to pose as film makers scouting Tehran as a movie location. Once the plan is agreed, it’s a race against time to evade the efforts of the revolutionary guard – and Washington – to get the group safely home.
The film’s depiction of revolutionary Tehran is terrifyingly excellent. A combination of documentary camerawork and a jerky, hand-held style closer to contemporary news footage puts the chaos and danger right in your face. And original footage from the time – people climbing over the embassy gates, a man hung from a crane – is re-created faithfully, adding to the authentic visuals. The crowd scenes – and there are plenty of them – are superbly orchestrated and make the audience feel as alienated as the diplomats. The Iranians are people too, but they look so different and speak an incomprehensible language: with the exception of one scene, there are no sub-titles telling you what they are saying, so you understand as little as the diplomats.
The penultimate scenes – both in Tehran and Washington – are nail-biting. And knowing how it ends doesn’t make the slightest difference: you’re still on the edge of your seat, willing them to escape. Clearly everybody in the screening I attended felt the same way: as the announcement was made on screen that the plane was out of Iranian airspace, there was a tangible feeling of relief – and a round of applause!
The script is first rate, neatly balancing tension with the dry humour of the CIA – there’s a glorious description of dealing with two senior politicians as being “like talking to the two old guys from The Muppets” – and the ripe humour of John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), drafted in from Hollywood to give the project some much-needed credibility. They are the source of a crude but funny running gag throughout the film – which is also the basis of my headline for this review. Thanks, guys!
It has to be said that Arkin has cornered the market in playing foul-mouthed but loveable old rogues and he’s on top form here. He and John Goodman make a great double act as the two movie types and it’s accentuated by their Little and Large appearances. Affleck is workmanlike in the lead: he’s strong enough to carry the film but you can’t help but feel he was happier behind the camera than in front of it. The six actors playing the diplomats produce a fine piece of ensemble acting: they’re all individuals in their own right with different views of their predicament and their potential liberator. Some of the men are buried under late ‘70s large glasses and droopy moustaches – including former CSI: Miami cast member, Rory Cochrane.
Argo is gripping and enthralling. It’s also that unusual animal – an intelligent political thriller and a blockbuster. You couldn’t make up a story like this – but wouldn’t it be a wonderful irony if a film about an absolute turkey of a movie that was never made ends up winning the Best Picture Oscar come February? Stranger things have happened…….
This review can be downloaded as a podcast at http://www.cyberears.com/index.php/Show/audio/5984