“If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” quips Hollywood heavyweight Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).
But unlike the fake schlock space film Siegel helps produce, the real Argo is definitely a hit.
Set during the 1979-80 Iranian hostage crisis, Argo follows the rescue operation of six US diplomats, who managed to flee the American embassy in Tehran when it was commandeered by Iranian student militants.
The six fled to the nearby residence of the Canadian ambassador (a staunch Victor Garber), and have been in hiding for 69 days before Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs), an expert CIA ‘exfiltrator’, is called in to bring them home.
Mendez, inspired by his son watchingBattle of the Planet of the Apes, crafts a rather ingenious plan (other options included a 300 mile bike ride – good plan, guys) to have the escapees pose as a Canadian film-crew, scouting for exotic locations for their new sci-fi epic Argo, and then sneak out under the revolutionaries’ noses.
Confidential information surrounding the operation was declassified by Bill Clinton in 1997, inspiring Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 Wired article ‘Argo:How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran’, which the film was based on, along with Mendez’s biography The Master of Disguise.
The film is a chance for the efforts of Mendez, and the combined US and Canadian governments, to finally be recognised (he was awarded an Intelligence Star for his involvement).
While some may be a little intimidated by the political history at the beginning – a mish-mash of commentary and archival footage – but even without a background knowledge of the story, the audience soon begins to see that this is (as cliché as it may sound) a story more about the people, less the politics.
I was teeth-clenchingly tense for the majority of the film – even though I knew what was coming.
Argo is part thriller, part action, part crime show, and all compelling (the final airport scene is brilliantly executed for maximum tenseness).
Some of the jumps to scenes in the White House or various other political offices, while obviously necessary to display the chain of events, did feel a little rushed at times, jarring the otherwise smooth running of the fast-paced action.
While a rather extensive cast impacted the development of some characters (for instance Kerry Bishe’s Kathy Stafford), the acting was all round commendable, with special kudos to Scoot McNairy (yes, real name) as Joe Stafford, who kicks up a fuss as the six Houseguests are prepped for departure.
But the standouts are John Goodman (a former master of prosthetics) and Alan Arkin as washed-up Hollywood professionals, brought in to put together the fake film – creating posters, storyboards and even holding a costumed reading to add credibility to the robots-and-aliens flick.
Goodman, charming and witty, perfectly complements a gorgeously acerbic and disillusioned Arkin , and the duo provide refreshing comic relief amongst the political flurry.
Affleck himself is measured, committed, and very human as Mendez, and the kind of guy you can’t help having faith in.
His belief in the operation inspires confidence in the diplomats – and I know he is definitely the one I would want to get me out of a sticky situation (him, and Liam Neeson).
Affleck’s attention to detail is arresting, with close-ups of facial intricacies and authentic props and scenery creating a wonderful 70s vibe.
He also juxtaposes the stark imagery of Tehran’s reality (a body hangs from a construction crane when Affleckfirst arrives) with its Westernised influences to chilling effect, as locals tuck in to chicken at a KFC on the streets.
Plus the credits, which place film stills next to passport photos and shots from during the Iranian crisis, highlight how much care the director took in ensuring Argo was as realistic as possible.
Cinematography wise, it is very late 70s/early 80s – all a bit yellow and grainy, which can be a bit grating in some films – but here really complements the content and adds to the believability. (Apparently Affleck shot on regular film then cut the frames in half and increased them by 200%, in order to increase the graininess – commitment.)
Affleck also directed 2010’s Academy Award nominated bank heist film The Town, and 2007’s Gone Baby Gone(starring little bro Casey), and there is similar Oscar buzz for this latest.
He has copped a bit of flack for some of his creative decisions – for one, casting himself in the title role as real-life Mendez who is actually Latino, as well as playing down the role of the Canadian government and Ambassador – but really does a smashing job of creating a simultaneously political and humourous story.
While the film does differ from the events so vividly depicted in Bearman’s Wired article, Affleck has defended his adaptation, saying: “Because we say it’s based on a true story, rather than this is a true story, we’re allowed to take some dramatic license. There’s a spirit of truth.”
And after all, what is Hollywood without a little bit of fakery?
Argo is thrilling, funny and involving – plus there are some really epic 70s moustaches (like you need any more drawcards).
Release Date: October 25, 2012 (AUS).
Directed By: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin.
Reviewed for LUNA Magazine.