The Movie Was Fake, The Mission Was Real
At the end of the seventies, Iran was in a state of uproar regarding the treatment of the people under the Shah’s totalitarian monarchist rule. Seeking immunity in the US, the Shah fled the country and the Iranians welcomed the Ayatollah Rudollah Khomeini as their new leader and adopted fundamental Islamic rule. With this came wave after wave of anti-American demonstration that came to a head in November 1979 when the US embassy was stormed and sixty hostages were taken. In an adjoining building, six Americans managed to escape the chaos and sought sanctuary with the Canadian ambassador. After seventy days, the Canadian and US governments agreed that time was running out for these six and they would need to be exfiltrated before being discovered. After several poor ideas were suggested, it was finally agreed that CIA agent Tony Mendez [Affleck] would fly to Iran, posing as a Canadian movie producer and return with the six hostages, under the guise of fellow film crew. In order to achieve this, Mendez must go to Hollywood and generate enough credible ‘buzz’ so that if anyone were to investigate this film, it would appear to be completely legit. For its absurdity and the high risk of national embarrassment, finding a willing producer, cast and crew to film something that will never happen proves tricky, not to mention interference from the upper echelons of the US government, who label the idea a mortifyingly stupid concept and thoroughly bad idea.
Much like Dog Day Afternoon, Argo takes a very simple but compelling premise and keeps the story grounded by focusing on a very clear set of individuals while maintaining the tension. Add to this superb editing and direction with strangely fitting bouts of humour and you have an absolutely hypnotic and captivating film. Furthermore, this really does feel like a call back to seventies filmmaking – which, in my opinion is a decade that produced some of the finest works known to cinema – not simply in style but in tonality. Granted, this is a period film that looks the part in terms of costume, hair, make-up and set design but also in the way in which is was filmed; the use of soft lenses, 8mm cutaways and stock newsreel footage really staple the story’s chronological setting.
In addition to the technical aspects, one of the reasons this film works so well, is the phenomenal casting. By utilising talented individuals who look, sound and act the part, rather than forcing big names into main roles, Argo delivers a very plausible and very real experience which only adds to the overbearing terror and thrilling suspense. Another key feature was the narrative parallel between the situation in Iran, the flippant nature of the Hollywood elite and the contradictory incompetence of higher government officials who wanted to avoid a scandal, or worse, a war. Having said that, I’m sure the actions of several characters will be marred when compared to those of their real-life counterparts – such a complaint is almost always present with this type of film. In my opinion, Affleck has crafted another fantastic release that is simultaneously entertaining and engaging and the criticisms this film will no doubt receive will more than likely centre on the nature and timing of the film, as opposed to how it was made. I’m quietly confident this isn’t an exact representation of the events that transpired and as with all films labelled ‘based on a true story’, it’s not a documentary and should not be treated as such. Ultimately, if you want the facts, read a book.
**One sentence in this tiny paragraph contains a rather monumental spoiler, just to forewarn you**
Despite attempts to tell a balanced story, there’s an unfortunate lack of Iranian dissidence. After all, the droves of protesters and gun-toting extremists didn’t speak for everyone. It’s also worth noting, the majority of people being executed in the streets were Iranian and despite the building suspense, not one American’s life is claimed. Personally, I’d recommend a double-bill, watching this release and Persepolis, to remind audiences that not everyone in Iran was a militant fundamentalist.
Although the two are completely unrelated, Argo gave me everything I wanted from Spielberg’s Munich: a decent story, gripping drama, sublimely subtle acting and a real sense of spectacle without resorting to the flash and overtly crass nature that big budget films often find themselves relying on. It’s not going to be to everyone’s liking but it is an undeniably powerful movie and simply confirms something I’ve known since 2007: Ben Affleck is an amazing director.
9th November 2012
The Scene To Look Out For:
After the brief opening summary, which cleverly uses photographs and stock footage through animated storyboards, we are thrown in the middle of a passionate and escalating protest outside the US embassy. The employees within have a mix of concern and dutiful calmness that is instantly relatable. The second the first few activists storm the grounds and aren’t simply shot on sight, a completely believable mild panic ensues and everyone begins destroying countless classified documents. Then the gates are forced open and the whole building is over-run with angry, militant individuals, who immediately round up and blindfold their captors. It’s a fantastically strong opening and really sets the tone and severity of the film without lowering itself to unnecessarily violent exaggerations. The key word here is realism and the controlled manner with which everyone executes their actions is strangely terrifying.
Singling anyone out in this kind of film is very difficult. Obviously Ben Affleck is centre stage and both Goodman and Arkin are the heavy-hitting comedic element, so they’re instantly memorable and likable. But if I had to pick a standout performance, I would say it was that of Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford. As one of the more outspoken members of the group, he is afforded a great deal of screen time and really follows up his magnificent performance in Killing Them Softly illustrating immense diversity, to the point of being almost unrecognisable – arguably, everything an actor should be.
“John Wayne’s in the ground six months and this is what’s left of America!”
In A Few Words:
“Gripping from start to finish, Argo successfully captures something long since absent from cinema and presents it in a thoroughly entertaining manner”