Ben Affleck is back showing off his directorial skills, with his new outing Argo being tipped as a strong contender, and probable winner, in the upcoming award season. His first try at bringing a movie based on real life events to the big screen has been met with some trepidation, but does Affleck’s vision of the ‘Canadian Caper’ deserve some upcoming gold?
After the U.S.A. grants asylum to the dying, ‘friendly’, Iranian Shah, the superpower finds it’s embassy in Tehran invaded by militants, and an uprising population, seeking justice for the terrible deeds committed while the Shah was in power. Six normal office workers manage to slip off in the confusion, and avoid being captured and held for ransom by bunking down in the Canadian ambassador’s house, while the U.S. Government and CIA struggle to come up with a plan to get their citizens out. Tony Mendez (Affleck, The Town) then comes up with an idea from the ‘so stupid it might just work’ pile; he goes in, dresses them up as a fake Canadian film crew, scouts locations for a desert based sci-fi film dubbed ‘Argo’, and then takes them home. And all of this is based on a true story!
Ben Affleck can act, and here he brings his A-game once again; he delivers the decent mix of under pressure CIA agent and separated family man without going into emotional meltdown; there are one or two slightly melodramatic turns (the “We’re responsible” war cry delivery is a bit of a head-turner), but that’s simple nitpicking for a supposedly ‘past it’ actor.
To make the charade legit, Mendez creates a fake production company in Hollywood. With a whiff of Entourage, it’s headed up by John Chambers (John Goodman, the upcoming Monsters University) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine). Yet, whilst Goodman is welcome in almost any film he’s in, he’s outshone by the marvellous performance Arkin puts in as Siegel; with a glimmer of how Ari Gold might be seen by younger viewers, this hardass Dreamtown producer was based on some of Hollywood’s former big wigs (especially Warner Brothers founder Jack Warner), and Arkin not only outshines every single one of the other cast members here, but delivers many of the films best lines; making him a a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor this awards season, with his portrayal of a funny, yet ruthless bastard of a, Hollywood producer.
Some friendly and familiar faces turn up too, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) finally gets round to playing a nice guy on the big screen for the first time in awhile (as Mendez’s boss), Carnivàle‘s Clea DuVall is given a memorable role (with her distinctive look peeking out from below a heavy hair dye job), and Kyle Chandler (Super 8) is the stand out male member of the six; as the one who doesn’t believe that the job will go off; his paranoia made believable by another top performance from an underrated, but mature, actor.
Balancing the serious side of helping the six escape from Tehran, and the rather humorous side of setting up the film company, was a difficult task, and could have been an easy trap to fall down, but thankfully the humour never gets on top of the escape plot (it’s there, but embraced like the ridiculousness of the Argo film storyline), and there’s a clear and consistent balance with humour, and the strikingly serious material, created by Affleck’s solid directorial abilities.
The main two crippling problems which stops Argo from getting full marks are the sheer amount of Pro-Americana and the rather distracting historical bias; it stops short of Affleck flying an American flag in your face at the end of the film, but that’s how ‘ra-ra’ cheery this film is; it’s all positive states, with not really enough to establish the moral grey in granting asylum to the rather crap human being that is the former Shah, and there’s hardly any positives given towards the Iranians. Yes, there’s going to be a level of bias with an American film based on a historical event involving Americans against the odds, but it’s all rather safe, with no daring to portray itself with any moral ambiguity.
With the bias, there’s too much removal from facts which would have made for a better morality tale; the UK and New Zealand get shafted as complete scumbags, in two lines which Affleck freely admits were included for story purposes (rather than telling the truth). There’s not a great deal made about the Canadian involvement, apart from ‘they stayed in his house for about 100 days, then they got them out in a cover story’, keeping the CIA and US’ involvement on the quiet, despite the Canadians having a bigger role in real life. It removes you from the film, knowing Argo is presented as fact, but gets half of its facts wrong.
The dramatization is incredible as well; the chase at the end of the film is just put in there for added theatre, as the seven got on the plane with no worries, which would have been a rather more effective story weapon (showing how morbid both parties were over the whole affair); but still, what do you expect from an American history picture aimed at common-man America?
However, Argo is still a highly enjoyable and well done film. There are some brilliant performances here brought to life by Affleck’s directorial dab hand, a painstaking level of detail exacted to make Argo as accurate as possible, and the ludicrousness of the plot is made believable (in this near biopic) through force of will alone. If you’re American, add an extra point to the score below. If you’re not, get over the self congratulatory pat-on-the-back and you will get on board with a terrific caper. A surefire win in award season.