The spy stays in the picture – Argo review

Argo – Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, and John Goodman. Directed by Ben Affleck. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

Here’s a story so strange and unlikely I can scarcely believe it’s true. No, I’m not referring to the tale of Argo, in which the CIA attempted to sneak six American hostages out of Iran by pretending they were a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a new sci-fi flick. That kind of stuff – though incredible – probably happens all the time, and considering this particular 1980 adventure was only declassified in 1997, you can imagine all the other crazy exploits being undertaken at this very moment. Rather, I’m talking about the tale behind Argo; that of Ben Affleck solidifying his credentials as one of the best and most exciting filmmakers in the business after floundering for years as a leading man. With this, his third feature, he emerges as a reliable director of serious, adult thrillers while still displaying a deft sense of humour and legitimate action chops. But ‘reliable’ suggests he’s ‘workmanlike,’ and that would probably be expected of any actor who didn’t totally embarrass himself behind the camera. Affleck is better than that. His name should now inspire delight and excitement in anyone that glimpses it on a movie poster, and for the longest time that was not the case.

After a brief, curiously animated introduction to the circumstances surrounding the Iranian Revolution, we are plunged into the fateful events of November 4, 1979, in which the U.S. embassy in Tehran is overthrown by angry protesters (the recent attacks against American embassies were immediately brought to mind). It’s one of the most dread-inducing and intense openings of recent years. Eager for the States’ to return the former Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the revolutionaries hold 52 people hostage, and try citizens suspected of having allegiances to the West in a kangaroo court that frequently ends with execution. Six government employees – portrayed nicely by Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe and Scoot McNairy  – evade capture by leaving their frying pan of an embassy office and escaping into the fryer-like streets. Hidden away by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), they await salvation. When months pass and no salvation comes, they resign themselves to eventually being found out by the Ayatollah’s roaming army.

The U.S. government turns to exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (a magnificently bearded Affleck), who comes up with a plan so crazy it just might work (that it was inspired by Battle for the Planet of the Apes should have been a concern). With the help of Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and an experienced producer (Alan Arkin, as an amalgam of real figures), Mendez purchases the script for a Star Wars knock off by the name of Argo, stages a costumed reading in the hopes of getting mentioned in Variety, commissions a one-sheet, and asks the Iranian culture minister if his crew might scout locations in his besieged, dystopian-looking capital. Mendez arrives in Tehran with good news for the confined sextet: they’re coming home! Well, so long as they can convincingly pose as fancy creative types. Quick, someone stick a neckerchief on Tate Donovan!

It is a testament to Affleck’s burgeoning reputation that he can recruit some of the finest character actors for the smallest of roles. There’s a temptation to list them all here; if only there was some sort of movie database on the internet that could provide you with that information so it didn’t clutter up my review. Best of all is Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss and confidant Jack O’Donnell, but you should also keep an eye out for a particularly prickly Kyle Chandler, the omnipresent Chris Messina, Affleck-mainstay Titus Welliver, as well as Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall, playing elder CIA honchos who O’Donnell hilariously describes as “the two old f**** in The Muppets.” Also, everybody’s haircuts are fantastic.

Screenwriter Chris Terrio – working from a Wired article by Joshuah Bearman – takes some expected liberties with the facts, though that should be of less concern than how he actually puts together the events and conveys the struggle from both sides with sensitivity. Argo, obviously, places its sympathies with the light-skinned captives, but it would be ignorant to think that Terrio and Affleck are trying to white-wash the situation. A moment of triumph for Mendez and company is immediately contrasted with a moment of heartbreaking struggle for one Iranian woman who had assisted in their escape. Parallels like this recur, but Argo is never heavy-handed. A sequence in which the “film crew” explore an over-populated bazaar – in which all the unsubtitled, aggressive-looking citizens threaten to ‘make’ our heroes – veers closest to a questionable depiction of the locals, but it does seem to accurately reflect the concerns and fears of those who have just witnessed a body hanging above them in the streets. It might be wiser to save your claims of xenophobia for something like Taken 2, which, admittedly, doesn’t pretend to have a brain cell in its ugly skull, but indeed features a series of greasy Albanian villains who are aided in their conspiracy to ‘take’ Liam Neeson by every single person in Istanbul. There’s “creating an intense, claustrophobic situation in a foreign locale” and there’s “inciting unquestioning fear of ‘the other’,” and Argo pulls off the former far more often than it accidentally achieves the latter.

Despite the terrifying circumstances – and the real world ramifications – of the Iranian Revolution, Argo still manages to find some rich humour in its outlandish set-up. Goodman and Arkin make a wonderful double act, as they tour Mendez through the similarly terrifying and duplicitous world of Los Angeles. The thrills are there too. The final set piece, in which the escape plan is finally put in motion, is expertly carried out by Affleck, whose steady-hand is mirrored by Mendez’s equally assured leadership. It’s a decent lead performance from him, but you can sense he’s happy to let his supporting cast steal the show. Affleck does, however, give himself a couple of hero shots, one of which recalls Robert Redford from Argo’s antecedent All the President’s Men. Fair enough. Though he’s not yet reached the heights of Redford as an actor, he’s trumped him as a director.

4/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Argo arrives in Australian cinemas October 25, 2012.

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