For his third film as director, Ben Affleck leaves behind the apparently crime rife streets of Boston for a period piece based loosely on the events on the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, in which the CIA was tasked with rescuing 6 US diplomats who escaped from the US Embassy in Tehran after in was taken over by militants, and are now hiding out at the Canadian embassy. The plan was to go into Iran under the pretence that the 6 plus Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA exfiltration expert, were a Canadian film crew on a location scout for their new science fiction film, called Argo.
It sounds daft admittedly, but the basis of the story is completely true. However the film itself never once feels like a Very Important Film, despite it being an early awards season contender it’s refreshing that it doesn’t batter you over the head with the self importance and entitlement that some Oscar bait films do. I reckon this is down to the film’s director; I’ve always been a fan of Affleck, even though some of his film choices have been less than good, he seems to have an assured touch as a director. In his first film, Gone Baby Gone, there were a few ‘first time director’ flourishes but here everything seems natural and flowing. There’s only one instance where you can feel the director’s hand at work, however it’s also the most chilling scene in the film in the way it juxtaposes the two very different worlds the film explores; the fun of making a film, with the executions in Iran.
But for a film that deals with a real life situation and one that it very serious, you’d be forgiven in thinking it would have a very sombre tone. In fact the whole middle section of the film, mostly dedicated to the creation of the fake film, is very very funny. Blackly comic of course, but it lightens the mood, enough to keep the film from becoming depressing but not too much that the shift back to the serious portion of the movie doesn’t feel too jarring. Alan Arkin (as producer Lester Siegel, a movie only creation) and John Goodman (as real life special effects artist John Chambers) who as the Hollywood contingent of the film, get most of the best lines. The rest of them fall to Bryan Cranston as Mendez’ CIA boss, who has a talent for very dry wit. Ben Affleck however, despite being director, producer and top billing star, doesn’t give himself a particularly showy role. Yes, he’s on screen for most of the film, but he’s more of a quiet, believable presence than over the top performance. The actors playing the 6 diplomats fare less well, with their characters, remaining not very fleshed out, aside from the one protestor among the group (played by Scoot McNairy), but it’s a minor quibble.
The film is essentially a caper film, only with a real life tale instead of Danny Ocean and his 10 friends, but whereas those films had big set pieces to raise the stakes, this film has very trivial situations in which to wring the tension out of. It’s a testament to the film that a crowded bazaar, a telephone not being picked up or a confrontation with a lowly airport security officer all have nail biting tension. And if the end gets a little too Hollywood (ironic, considering) with its close calls and near misses, it’s forgivable, as everything up until then has been excellent.
I can’t say too much more without spoiling the film, but it is a very enjoyable period piece, with some great performances and despite being an Oscar contender, doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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