If someone made this up you probably wouldn’t buy it. Director Ben Affleck brings this stranger-than-fiction tale into vivid and very exciting life.
The year is 1979, the setting Iran. Amidst turmoil and revolution, the US embassy in Tehran is invaded. Hostages are taken but some of the diplomats manage to flee. Six such escapees find shelter in the Canadian embassy and the CIA hatches a plot to get them out. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) create a smokescreen. This comes in the shape of a fictitious Canadian film production: a science fiction fantasy called 'Argo'. With the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin) they take a genuine script and develop LA media buzz – all to get the trapped Americans, posing as a make-believe crew scouting for locations, out of Iran.
The film is quite conventional in its form but Affleck’s workmanlike execution creates a fabulous piece of entertainment. The rip-roaring, wild and outrageous story makes for very compelling viewing. It kept this reviewer right on the edge of his seat. From the intense storming of the US embassy to its thrilling conclusion I barely found time to breathe.
It’s a fascinating story. The sheer bizarreness makes for an interesting watch but the film is not without its problems. The six diplomat characters are written so paper thinly you have little idea who they really are. On top of that they’re a bit pathetic and not very likeable. This is a problem because you need to be rooting for these guys. Ultimately, the only person I wanted to see safely out of Iran was Tony Mendez, the man sent in to rescue them. I wish more time had been devoted to fleshing out their parts, especially considering the large numbers we focus on in the CIA headquarters and the White House, many of whom seem rather superfluous.
The film is bathed in delicious seventies detail - much of it subtle which actually delivers more impact. From the off, the era-appropriate seventies Warner Brothers “W” logo sets the tone. As an aside, I never tire of this device. Other examples, FYI, include Fincher using a seventies Paramount logo to start Zodiac and Eastwood using a twenties Universal logo to begin Changeling – each lending an immediate authenticity to the film to come. (And you gotta love the studios for letting them do it.)
I’m a little bemused by some of the near-perfect reviews this is getting, as the script, at times, is a little weak. A lot of the humour falls flat and occasionally it feels a bit TV movie. However, the adrenalin thrills more than make up for it, making Argo a superior piece of work. (Hence four solid stars.)