Argo is Ben Affleck’s the latest slap in the face to the critics who wrote him off as a pretty boy with a wooden jaw circa Pearl Harbour. It tells the story of an audacious attempt by the American and Canadian governments to exfiltrate six escaped American embassy workers using the expertise and know how of two legendary Hollywood film makers. Taking place during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 where 52 hostages were held for more than a year, this series of recently declassified events already sounded like a plot so ludicrous no self respecting screenwriter would dare show it to a producer.
The plan was to produce a fake cover as a Canadian film crew and get them out through the airport. Not an easy thing to do when your face has been made known to the ruthless members of a revolutionary police force. Ben gives himself the lead role as Tony Mendez, the “Moses” in charge of the Exodus, Bryan Cranston is his boss, Alan Arkin is a producer brought in to give the fake movie an air of authenticity and John Goodman plays John Chambers, the real life makeup artist behind such legendary faces such as Dr. Zaius and Mr. Spock.
The first thing to mention about the film is how well the satire of the movie industry counter balances against the claustrophobic drama of the Americans in hiding. The most interesting parts of the film though are the sections where West and Middle East collide; the decadence of the American movie makers shown in tragi-comic tandem with a desperate mob of oppressed Iranians. The reason this all works though is that, even though the silly is at first given more screen time than the serious, you get the feeling it knows its place, that it is the servant not the master. It keeps the self aware humour to a minimum allowing itself only a few swipes at its director. Its intent is for us never to lose sight of what is at steak.
The acting is similar. With the execption of Alan Arkin’s comic relief, acting is subdued, expression kept to a minimum with not even Affleck’s character getting a massive amount of screentime. This results in his best achievement: crowd acting. Whether it is in a CIA office in Langley or a street in Dubai, a group of actors interacting, talking to and inturupting each other feels authentic, spontaneous, like anything could happen from any given number of sources. You feel the tention in the air haning as thick as smoke, their paranoid ticks and twitched make you feel like you’re being watched.
One of the key reasons this works though, is the fact that no one ever dominates a scene, they can lead but they never make it about them. You never see a situation from any one characters perspective, you almost feel like a voyeur, an invisible and silent participant. Special mention must go to the six actors who played the Americans in hiding, the authenticity of their performances gives the film a documentary feel.
The authenticity isn’t just found in the acting. The period detail goes right down to the decay on the walls caused by cartons upon cartons of cigarette smoke. Sometimes this doesn’t just feel like a period piece set in the 70’s it feels like a contemporary movie made in the 70’s.
Revolutionary Iran is a dangerous place to be on the run in. Large gatherings of people feel lik they have a powder keg quality to them, they could go up at any moment. Fortunately Ben has provided us with the context to sympathise with our antagonists. It paints a stark picture of messy and unscrupulous foreign politics, one we are all complicit in. But it is also my number one complaint with the film. There are more elegant ways to humanise your adversaries than to frontload the film with a history lesson, even if it is charmingly done in the manner of an old 1970’s sci-fi storyboard. The main problem though is that without it I’m almost certain the Iranians would come across as the same kind of mindless ciphers you find screaming death at you in your average game of Call of Duty.
Argo is an excellent little film made with the same attention to detail as an attentive child would give his toy soldier. The period detail is a call back to heroic 70’s filmmaking, the acting is always genuine and never self indulgent and the script knows exactly what the story requires of it at all times. Good job Ben, good job.