With screenplay genius such as ‘Argo fuck yourself’, JACKSON CAINES manages to believe in both the plot and the quality of this Oscar contender from not-just-a-pretty-face Ben Affleck.
It’s a story so ludicrous you dare not believe it. But as President Jimmy Carter informs us himself, the events of Argo (some dramatic license notwithstanding) really did happen.
Faced with the task of getting six American diplomats out of Iran alive amidst the notorious hostage crisis of 1979-81, the CIA really did decide that their best bet was to fake the production of a Star Wars-style Hollywood blockbuster to provide the diplomats with a cover story that would get them through Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport in one piece. With all the inevitable suspense and surrealism that such a caper suggests, it was only a matter of time before it got a cinematic treatment, and with Argo director Ben Affleck has delivered a quality product with a head and a heart.
The film opens with a superbly executed set piece as Iranian revolutionaries storm the American embassy. Panicked diplomats try to burn their records while the enraged students smash and shoot their way in – this is gripping stuff which deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Deftly weaving in archive news footage and attention to period detail (big collars and big moustaches), Affleck wonderfully evokes this era of dread and uncertainty which sorely damaged the self-confidence of the US. Chris Terrio’s screenplay is razor-sharp, skilfully pivoting between quick-fire CIA-speak, Hollywood wisecracking and the naturalistic exchanges of the frightened diplomats.
The lifeblood of Argo is its high-calibre cast. Alan Arkin (of Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine fame) nearly steals the show as a has-been film producer with an endearingly irreverent take on the rescue mission (‘Argo fuck yourself’) while John Goodman delivers some healthy jibes at Hollywood which elicited laughter from even the small Cineworld audience (‘You wanna come to Hollywood and act like a big-shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in’). But this is an ensemble piece and equally worthy are Christopher Denham, Clea DuVall and Scoot McNairy who all manage to breath life into their characters despite having to vie for limited screen time. Affleck, playing the lead role in front of as well as behind the camera, gives an understated performance as CIA genius Tony Mendez. It’s just a shame that his back-story is given such short shrift – the handful of references to his estranged wife make for the one weak link in the film’s carefully constructed plot.
Some critics have pointed out that the film’s portrayal of the Iranian people is problematic; indeed, they are invariably shown as savage, tribal, and stupid. In the crowd scenes, however, Affleck is usually recreating news footage, and he does include a few shots of angry, xenophobic Americans for good measure. All the same, it’s probably a good idea to watch an Iranian film like A Separation to complement Argo’s flag-waving Americanism.
This likely Oscar contender is a reminder of what Hollywood can still do when it really wants to. It’s smart, suspenseful and just a little sentimental. Give us an Argo for every super-hero sequel and my faith in mainstream cinema may just be restored.