Gone Baby Gone and The Town were enough to establish Ben Affleck as a superlative director, but Argo verifies that he’s a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. What we have here is a godsend of a motion picture; a smart, riveting old-fashioned thriller which conveys a fascinating true story in a spellbinding fashion. Maintaining a remarkable tonal balance, Argo is a relevant history lesson, a nail-biting suspense movie, a knowing satirical send-up of the Hollywood movie business, and a celebration of what’s possible in the unlikely event of incredible governmental cooperation. While Argo may ostensibly look to be a boring, talky political drama, it’s far more skilful. The movie’s biggest success is that it’s never boring; Affleck tells this tale in an undeniably engrossing fashion, through great screenwriting and filmmaking, and with great actors.
In 1979, a group of rioting Tehran locals arrive at the gates of the U.S. Embassy and take control of the building with violent force. Amid the chaos, six American employees decide to make a break for it, and wind up hiding out in the Canadian Embassy under the care of Ken Taylor (Garber). Thus begins a long, arduous wait for rescue, with the Americans growing unsure if they will ever leave Iran alive. Enter CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck), who dismisses all conventional extraction ideas in favour of another idea so crazy it just might work: set up a faux Hollywood movie company, fly to Iran under the ruse of being on a location scout for their upcoming sci-fi blockbuster “Argo,” and fly the Americans out of the country disguised as the film crew. To make the ruse look as genuine as possible, Tony recruits Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (Goodman) and veteran film producer Lester Siegel (Arkin), who set up a faux production company and con the Hollywood press into believing that “Argo” is an authentic production. With a full script written, a cast in place, storyboards and posters drawn up, and a lot of media buzz, Mendez travels to Iran hoping the ruse is strong enough to successfully fool the Iranian government.
Truth, they say, is often stranger than fiction – and this story about a fake movie being set up for a daring rescue operation is so outlandish that it just has to be true. Dramatic license was taken, but for the most part Argo is a pretty accurate retelling of this incredible operation, which remained secret for nearly twenty years until President Clinton declassified the files in the 1990s. Argo is not equipped with any sort of political statement, nor does it have any sort of sociological agenda – instead, this is a straight-ahead film which allows us to experience this situation in a visceral fashion. The film is not exactly light, but Affleck does liven the proceedings with a smattering of humour here and there, mostly provided by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. But the comic relief is by no means in bad taste; the tonal changes are remarkably well-negotiated and the film never devolves into dumb slapstick. It’s frankly miraculous that Affleck manages to smoothly guide the film between deadly serious and light-hearted.
The opening sequence depicting the takeover of the U.S. Embassy is nothing short of mesmerising – the sense of sheer immediacy and peril is overwhelming, and authenticity is elevated by the use of genuine archival footage intermingled with Affleck’s stunning recreation of the scene. Added to this, the film does a tremendous job of establishing Tehran’s many dangers, from the hot-headed Iranian guards to the Canadian Embassy’s maid who’s under pressure to sell out the Americans. Every step of Mendez’s plan is a minefield, leading to an unbearable amount of tension. Indeed, the final forty minutes of Argo are a perfect storm of spot-on editing, thespian brilliance and engaging camerawork, leading to a climax which will quite literally have you on the edge of your seat. Seriously, forget about biting your fingernails – you’ll munch right through them and chew your fingers down to the knuckles.
In terms of technical achievements, Argo is Affleck’s most impressive film to date. This is not a stylised, glossy recreation of the ’70s – it’s astonishingly authentic, with sets and costumes effortlessly making us believe we’re looking through a time portal. The film even begins with the retro Warner Bros. logo which hasn’t been used for decades. Affleck and his director of photography Rodrigo Prieto experimented with film processing in post-production, shooting on regular film before cutting the frames in half and blowing up the image to 200% in order to increase graininess. As a result, Argo looks like a genuine film from the 1970s, especially with its retro colour palette. What has been achieved here is frankly phenomenal.
Keeping us interested at all times is the sensational cast. It may seem like an egocentric move for Affleck to cast himself as Tony Mendez, but he’s an ideal central anchor, and his performance is engagingly understated. Alongside him, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston easily convinces as Mendez’s superior, bringing a world-weary professionalism to the role. The standouts, though, are Goodman and Arkin, who are hugely enjoyable as the Hollywood insiders. Both actors deliver hilarious one-liners with real finesse. Meanwhile, the six Americans were played by a terrific bunch of performers. This is a rare case where actors were chosen not for their star-power, but for their ability to be convincing, not to mention they all look remarkably like their real-life counterparts. Titanic actor Victor Garber is equally impressive as the Canadian Ambassador. It’s a huge cast, and there are absolutely no weak links among them.
History buffs can sick back and nit-pick Argo‘s historical inaccuracies, of which there are a few. And there has been controversy about the dramatic license taken by Affleck and his team. But this is a motion picture, and what matters is whether or not the interpretation of this series of events actually works. In this case, Argo works brilliantly, and, if you experience the movie with no knowledge of its inaccuracies, you simply will not care that it took a few liberties with history. Argo is the film of the year; an excellently constructed thriller which reinforces that Affleck is a director to watch. What other filmmaker can say that their first three movies are masterpieces?