Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Argo (2012)

I’ve never really seen the point of Ben Affleck as an actor. For a considerable amount of time he was nothing more than the friend of the much more talented Matt Damon. Whilst he is not always awful but he was, more often than not, forgettable. However, like Clint Eastwood and George Clooney, Affleck has made a much more noticeable step into the world of directing. Gaining critical acclaim for his previous efforts Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck now tackles Chris Terrio’s script based on a strange but true part of American and Canadian history. For his third time in the director’s chair, Ben Affleck moves away from the familiarity of his much loved Boston to tackle the wider world and bigger issues.

Declaring itself to be 'based on real events', Argo is set during the Iran hostage crisis that took place from 1979 to 1981. It opens with a brief but vital introduction to the history of the West's involvement in Iran presented rather sleekly in the style of a graphic novel. Yes, this segment may be criticised for being simplistic and reductive but sets about to remind the audience that Western powers helped to establish the monarchy in Iran. An issue that led to the Islamic revolution that gave vent to anti-American feeling within the population. When Iranian militants stormed the U.S Embassy in November 1979 and took 52 American citizens hostage, six workers managed to escape undetected. Taking refuge at the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) they were forced to lay low for two months for fear of being captured.

With both the American and Canadian governments under pressure to keep all those involved safe, there followed a frantic race to think up a plan that would safely lead the diplomats out of Tehran and back home. Considered to be the best option available, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, along with some key players, turns to Hollywood to provide an alibi for the group's presence. They are to be provided with Canadian passports and passed off as part of a film crew scouting for locations to shoot their Star Wars-esque sci-fi movie. It's an absurd plan but it's just crazy enough to work.

Affleck has a knack for telling a story. He ensures that the action is always moving forwards but never fails to keep everything feeling realistic enough. Aided by some beautiful work by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and some propulsive editing, the plot advances relentlessly without any evidence of unnecessary material. Argo is a mature, intelligent and efficient film. It does what it needs to do in as simple a manner as it is able. Affleck is not just looking back to the 1970s but emulating them. From his use of the old Warner Brothers logo to the grainy look of the entire thing, the director is creating his own brand of 70s suspense film.

With an appropriately beardy look, Affleck places himself in the role of sober 70s action hero and does so remarkably well. I've seen a fair amount of criticism about Affleck's portrayal of Mendez but I have to disagree. His performance is very thoughtful and professional but there is a certain amount of likeability beneath all that stocism. Detached though it may seem I have to argue that Affleck's portrayal of the 'exfil expert' is perfectly in keeping with the plot. The nature of the story being told means that Mendez shouldn't be in your face and overly dramatic. He is a CIA agent given the huge task of sneaking six people out of a very volatile setting. This isn't Mendez's story but the story that comes out of his idea.

He surrounds himself with a cast of great performers, not all of whom are big Hollywood names, and ensures that their performances are reined in enough to let the narrative speak for itself. Non of the characters are given a great amount of depth but they are all believable thanks to some fantastic performances. Everyone is perfectly cast and offer some amazing performances: Bryan Cranston as Mendez's boss; Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador; and Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishe as the six hostages. They're all absolutely on point.

Of course, the stand-out comic performances come from John Goodman as Oscar winning make-up artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin as composite character Lester Siegel. Both actors give great performances with Arkin, in particular, providing the brunt of the humour. It is during the Hollywood scenes that Affleck introduces his audience to his sub-theme, a droll inside look at Hollywood. The pair repeatedly take shots at the inherent egomania and self-denial of the movie business. However, it is all done with an obvious amount of affection and the importance of Hollywood in the rescue of innocent lives can hardly be forgotten.
As a director, Affleck does a brilliant job of combining the comedic and dramatic elements of the narrative. Thanks also to the superb editing, courtesy of William Goldenberg, the film moves majestically between moments of drama and humour in this horrendously far-fetched yet true story. There are some fantastic moments where the action cuts back and forth between the staged reading of the fake film, the Iranians in control of the embassy, and the tense atmosphere within the Canadian ambassador's household. These potentially jarring elements come together harmoniously. The narrative glides smoothly towards the inevitably tense climax.

It's safe to assume that nearly all of the audience know the outcome of the story before the opening credits but Affleck still manages to bring a certain amount of tension to the plot. Though we must not forget that this is still Hollywood so the houseguests find themselves in more moments of heart-stopping drama than was actually the case. The final stage of the escape plan is wrought with all kinds of danger with several near misses and the obligatory chase scenes. However, that does not mean that Argo is not an intelligent film. Yes, the plot is sensationalised and there has been a fair amount of artistic license taken but, more importantly, the true bravery and drama remains.

There has also been a great deal of criticism regarding the historical accuracy of Affleck's film. There has been much said about the increased importance of the American government in the plan and the consequent lessening of the Canadian role. Terrio's script attempts to simplify the matters and does so by removing evidence of the aid given to the six by the English and Australian ambassadors. To many, Argo has been viewed as nationalist propganda intended to inflate America's already large ego. Although, that is ignoring the fact that, whilst Ken Taylor's role has been minimised here, Affleck has the greatest respect for the amount of work the Candian government did in helping get the six Americans out of danger. I also don't think the ending is that full of pro-America feeling and Affleck is always keen to remind us of America's role in starting the revolution. The ending has a great sense of general joyous celebration that goes hand-in-hand with a successful operation rather than drowning the audience in an atmosphere of "America, FUCK YEAH!" I could understand people getting angry if Affleck and Terrio had set out to create a documentary about that period but this is a film. Argo does wish to inform, that cannot be denied, but it is also intended to entertain. If there's one thing we can learn from Quentin Tarantino, it's that anyone who uses Hollywood films as historical sources probably doesn't deserve to know the truth.

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