Shedding light on the incredible true events of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, Director Ben Affleck stars as CIA evacuation specialist Tony Mendez. After the US Embassy in Tehran is stormed by Militants in 1979 and more than fifty staff are taken hostage, six manage to escape into the custody of the Canadian Ambassador where they remain hidden for weeks while the State Department and CIA try to figure out a way of extracting them from the most watched and most anti-American city in the world. Mendez has the idea of creating a fake movie and giving himself and the six hidden embassy staff fake identities as Producers, Scriptwriters and the like, on a location scouting assignment before simply flying out of the country. The idea is met with scepticism by the CIA and State Department as well as the hidden six but with no other viable options, Mendez is given the green light.
Despite co-writing Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon in the mid 90s, Ben Affleck soon became known for his celebrity relationships and mediocre performances in overblown and critically disappointing films such as Pearl Harbor and Armageddon. It came as a surprise to many then that Affleck’s Directorial debut Gone Baby Gone was as good as it was and he then followed this up with another critical success The Town in 2010. With Argo, Affleck is now three for three and seems to be going from strength to strength as a Director.
Argo is an excellent film that is tense and taught and has an almost unbelievable story. Although I was aware of the Hostage Crisis before I had no idea about the Argo side of the story and it seems ripe for the big screen. Affleck pulls it off with aplomb. The film opens with a brief history of Iran and an explanation as to how it got to boiling point in 1979. The blame for many of the problems is thrown squarely (and rightly) and the USA and Britain for their role in overthrowing the secular, elected leader of the country in the first place. With Iran back in the headlines and with a possible war looming, I thought it was brave for a Hollywood film to share some of the blame on the West and not simply use the film as a piece of propaganda. Images of the embassy storming are shot using a mixture of excellent traditional camerawork and what appears to be newsreel footage though is in fact all produced for the film. The late 70s look is extremely authentic.
Once the embassy is under attack the actors and direction create a palpable sense of fear that puts you inside the embassy with them. The whole sequence feels very claustrophobic and tense. Scenes of female embassy staff being blindfolded and taken away are also very scary. The whole sequence and indeed film, is drenched in realism. The level of detail throughout the film is extremely high with costumes, props and dialogue feeling just right. Although it is all excellent it isn’t until the end of the film when pictures of the actors appear next to pictures of their real life counterparts that you notice just how detailed the film is. Every single actor looks the spit of the person they’re playing. Not only do hair, makeup, glasses and clothes match but even the physical features are remarkably similar. It’s almost eerie. There are a couple of GCI shots which don’t look great but other than that the film on the whole looks incredible. I also need to say something which is quite strange and that is that Ben Affleck has almost exactly the same hair and beard as me. It’s really strange. My girlfriend even turned to me and said “You look just like Ben Affleck in Argo. He’s hot in it and you look like him. Do I look like Jennifer Garner?” I replied “Only if she was painted by Picasso…” Ahh sofa my old friend…
One of the great things about Argo is that as well as an espionage thriller you also get a behind the scenes The Producers style comedic element to the film as Mendez goes to Hollywood to try and put the fake movie into pre production. An important part of the plan is to convince anyone in Iran that the film is real and to do so the CIA hires makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Both actors are excellent in their roles as characters who appear to enjoy manipulating Hollywood to their whim. The Argo side of the film is also quite funny and often surreal which helps to balance the tense nature of the Tehran side of the plot. I loved seeing behind the scenes of early 80s Hollywood and the Star Wars rip off Argo looked like a lot of fun. Crap fun, but fun nonetheless.
As well as excellent performances from Affleck, Arkin and Goodman, the six hidden staff are also very good. Kerry Bishe stands out amongst them though and Scoot McNairy is also well cast. All of them though and indeed the whole cast appear to fit perfectly. The soundtrack too is something worth noting. Containing a mixture of Iranian music and Western rock from the period, it works really well. I was chuffed to bits to hear Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks. I can’t recall ever hearing it in a film before and it also works well as a metaphor for the world crumbling around Mendez at the point at which it is used.
At times the film appears to oversimplify things and you have to perhaps question the portrayal of Iran and its people. Canada’s role also feels a little sidelined but overall it is a wonderfully crafted thriller which looks set to be a contender come awards season. Affleck once again proves that he is a Director worth taking note of and the tense yet darkly comic script is something that I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of before.