– Summary –
Director : Ben Affleck
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Rory Cochrane, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton, Phillip Baker Hall, Richard Kind, Michael Parks.
Approx Running Time : 120 Minutes
Synopsis: When 5 American consular officials become fugitives from the revolutionary Iranian forces in 1979, they escape to the Canadian Embassy – where they wait to be rescued. The CIA develops a plan to get them out, posing as a Hollywood movie production, led by covert operative Tony Mendez, to escape right out from under the noses of those seeking to kill them.
What we think : Without doubt, Argo is the best Hollywood film of 2012. It’s sharply written, well directed (by Ben Affleck, whose reputation as a better director than actor is fast gaining traction) and with a faultless period production design, Argo’s true-life story would seem too far fetched if it wasn’t…. well, you know, true. If you only see one “a true story” film this year, make it Argo. It’ll be so worth it.
Ben Affleck has suddenly become one of those sneak-up-from-behind directors, a director whose gradual rise in prominence is unexpected by the dirty masses but heralded by the geekdom fraternity who follow cinema and film with a fanaticism unequaled in this generation. His success on Gone Baby Gone, which many wrote off as a fluke, was followed up by the critical darling of 2010, The Town, and now he compounds his street cred amongst the cineasts of our world with Argo, a genuinely ripping yarn about hostage rescue. Once a guy reviled for films like Gigli (considered among the worst films ever made, although he didn’t direct, only starred in) Daredevil (which wasn’t bad excepting that it was… well, bad) and Surviving Christmas (dear Lord, let this film be cast into the depths of Hell and never spoken of again), Affleck’s made a startling career left-hook by stepping behind the camera and delivering workmanlike success stories that capture both critics and audiences alike with their charm, wit and professionalism. His directorial skill, honed perhaps from his working with directors like Michael Bay, John Woo, John Frankenheimer, Gus Van Sant and Kevin Smith (among others), feels effortless, like he’s been doing it all his life, and nowadays a new Ben Affleck film is something to look forward to, rather than regard with hesitation and reticence. Argo joins the hallowed ranks of Oscar nominated films for the 2012 calendar year, a testament to Affleck’s ability to carve an interesting, tense and always exciting story from the seemingly innocuous, although the film is up against some stiff competition in the form of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, and Tarantino’s Django Unchained. So how does Argo stack up against those heavyweights of film?
In November 1979, militants storm the US Embassy in Iran after the US allows the country’s former Shah to stay within its borders, taking fifty people hostage, but unwittingly allowing 6 to escape out a back door. Those six manage to find their way to the Canadian Ambassadors house, where they spend the next several months awaiting rescue and avoiding discovery. CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) devises a plan to get the 6 trapped staffers out of a now hostile Iran: he proposes that the CIA funds production of a Canadian produced movie, titled “Argo”, which will be filmed in and around Iran. The movie is a front, of course, and will never be made, but the cover story needs to be convincing enough to pass through the borders of Iran. Mendez will then provide the 6 embassy staff with fake paperwork that shows they are members of the film’s production, and attempt to leave the country with them via the airport. Midway through the mission, the powers that be recant on the plan, instead going with a highly improbably mission to provide the staffers with bicycles to ride out of the country. Mendez, who has promised the 6 he will get them home safely, decides to go with his plan anyway, making a hasty dash to the airport and hoping that he can board a plane and escape the country.
While he may have lost plenty of cred as an actor, Ben Affleck has gone a long, long way to redeem himself as a director. Argo is his third straight success at directing, as a tense, terrifyingly unpredictable (if you don’t know the background story) and amazingly produced true story in Argo makes for compelling viewing. Boasting one of the best casts for any film this year (aside from perhaps Lincoln) Affleck has managed to pull off a feat I’d not thought him capable of – my opinion is that Argo is the best film of 2012, period. It’s not a musical, it doesn’t star Leonardo DiCaprio, and no, Affleck doesn’t cry at all during this thing (he comes close, but doesn’t shed a tear); Argo is working up a steep hill to be better than most of the other great films of the last 12 months. Yet, Affleck pulls it off. I doubt you’ll find a more engaging, riveting and astonishing film than Argo, at least one that’s as convincingly essayed as this one.
Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, although he’s more than amply backed up by stagers like Bryan Cranston (rapidly gaining traction outside his Breaking Bad television series with great performances in films like Drive, Little Miss Sunshine, and now Argo – among others), John Goodman and Alan Arkin (how these two haven’t been buddied up in a film before now beggars belief!); the cast are uniformly excellent. Affleck stuffs his film with faces you recognise but names you might not – Clare DuVall, Victor Gerber, Tate Donovan, Kyle Chandler (who also appears in another 2012 Oscar nominated film, Zero Dark Thirty) and Bob Gunton all make appearances to flesh out the depth in this story, and all provide ample realism to what is quite a terrifying scenario. Affleck himself plays Mendez as reserved, highly focused and really self-assured, and it’s a change from the usual gangbuster Affleck I’ve watched all these years. The dazzling teeth and look-at-me acting style have all but vanished here, allowing Mendez’s drive to succeed, his emotional journey, to play out naturally before the audience; it heightens the dramatic tension for the mission itself, which dominates the majority of the film once Mendez arrives in Iran to begin his rescue.
While the cast are rock solid, the production value itself is worthy of genuine commendation. Argo looks fantastic, from the nuts-and-bolts period costumes and settings (how they got a lot of this stuff to look like it did amazed me) to the visual style employed by Affleck’s cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto. Prieto is a talent I’ve admired for a while now, having seen his work in films as diverse as Frida and 8 Mile, to Alexander and Babel (one of the best films ever, IMO!) and I’m continually astonished by the variety in his work. Here, he presents 1980’s Iran with a grim, gritty, near-pitch-perfect light, giving the film stock that blaring color tone we associate with films of that era. It’s apropos without being obsequious, that is. The film looks like it was made in 1980, even though it’s a modern work. Prieto lights the film with a soft fill light, sometimes allowing the colors to bloom and over-saturate, although at times he pulls back the shutter to give a more naturalistic, semi-documentary flavor to it all. Watch the Hollywood-set sequences, which are all warm-n-fuzzy, while the Iranian sequences are sharp and nearly desaturated in warmth – it’s a very nice visual conceit Afflecks’ employed, and it does heighten the mood of the story as it goes along. Also keep an ear out for Alexandre Desplat’s stunning score, which I think should snag the Oscar for Best Original Score. It’s a terrific work, tense and exciting while also enlightening and dream-like, as if part of the magic of the fake movie the CIA have concocted. If you want to hear more from Desplat, check out The Girl With The Pearl Earring, The Queen, The Ghost Writer, and The Ides Of March for some of his best stuff.
The script, written by Chris Terrio, is razor sharp. This film crackles with an energy and palpable tension right from the monologue opening, an opening which explains a little of the backstory to Iranian history at the time the film is set. Dialogue is minimal at times, with glances and sharp edits drawing tension from each scene – especially once the 6 staffers leave the Canadian residence they’re holed up in. The lack of subtitles on a lot of important Iranian conversation, as the escapees make it through the airport terminal, really amps up the tension too, mainly because as somebody who doesn’t speak Iranian, I have no idea if things are getting better or worse. Mendez’s backstory allows us to realize that he’s as human and you or I – this man ain’t a Chuck Norris or a Sly Stallone – and he might fail in this mission. Affleck doesn’t dwell on Mendez’s home life too much, other than to suggest it’s currently in transition of some kind, but it’s enough to elicit the right emotion from us. Alan Arkin and John Goodman get a lot of the film’s best lines, and provide the darkly wry comic relief – Arkin in particular does himself so well it’s almost a caricature, while Goodman’s line about training Reesus monkeys is a gut-buster – and Bryan Cranston does a great job as Affleck’s boss at the CIA.
Whether creative liberties were taken on Argo’s story compared to the real event is probably not really the domain of my opinion here. I’d like to think it’s all true, but I’d doubt that thought instantly afterwards; regardless, the basis of Argo is a terrific cinematic event anyway, and Affleck more than handles the demands of such a globetrotting, wide-scale thriller like this. If there’s any fault with Argo, it’s in the somewhat generic portrayal of the Iranian rebels – come to think of it, the Middle Eastern perception of “anyone could be our enemy” by Affleck does smack a little of a political statement – who wave guns and sound like they’re about to kill you even though they’re probably just asking for the time please. I’m not sure why Affleck didn’t put more effort into giving the Iranians at least some comprehensible motivation for their behavior, but it does seem to me that it makes the film more about Good Guys and Bad Guys than it probably was at the time. It’s a small thing, I guess, in the overall story, but it’s something worth noting.
I’m more than impressed with Argo as a film – I’m stunned. It’s a ripper of a film, the kind of film you watch and then think about for days afterwards. So many things could have gone wrong in this story, so many changes of luck, so many potential leaks in the mission; you shake your head that it’s true at all, let alone a relatively recent event. Ben Affleck has announced himself properly into the directorial elite with Argo, and I’m hoping he keeps this quality of work up for a long time to come. A brilliant thriller with captivating performances and stunning production design, Argo is, for me at least, the best film from of 2012.