This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 21st October 2012
Argo is one of those brilliant, “We couldn’t tell you this at the time”, true stories which has been released from one of no doubt hundreds of secret CIA files hidden away in a dusty basement in Langley, Virginia.
In 1980, the United States Embassy in Tehran was hijacked by Iranian protesters, and the hostages were holed up for many months. Six Americans escaped but had to go into hiding elsewhere in the city. The CIA devised a way to bust them out of Iran by creating an unlikely false cover story: engaging real film producers, they made up a sci-fi movie and told the Iranian authorities they wanted access to scout for locations with their “crew”.
At the helm of both story and movie is Ben Affleck, who directs and also stars as real-life CIA agent Tony Mendez. It’s a tribute to Affleck’s restraint that he plays Mendez as an understated hero, letting Bryan Cranston and the other brown-suited bureaucrats carry the screentime – and Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) and an ebullient John Goldman steal all the scenes. Look carefully and you’ll recognise the wiry chap behind the massive glasses and ridiculous moustache as up-and-comer Scoot McNairy, currently in Killing Them Softly.
As my old boss would say, be sceptical but don’t be cynical: Ben Affleck isn’t just the star of no one’s favourite World War II drama and Jennifer Lopez’s ex-fiance. If you cast your mind back to 1998, two bright-eyed young chaps leapt on stage to receive their Oscar for best screenplay for Good Will Hunting. Ben and Matt Damon have gone on to carve out serious acting careers, and it’s Ben who has impressed further with his directorial outings.
Gone Baby Gone saw him cast brother Casey as a cop investigating the kidnapping of a little girl, and proved he does good noir. Then in 2010, Affleck produced an excellent heist movie, The Town, showing the darker side of his native Boston and cementing Jeremy Renner as a compelling leading man. This man has directing chops.
Argo leaps into action in the opening scene, then skips nimbly between two threads: the serious business of saving lives, which produces nail-bitingly tense action, and the delicious concept of devising the fake movie, delivering welcome moments of levity. Arkin dismisses Affleck’s concern about personifying a movie director with “You can teach a monkey to be a director in a day”, and the pretend movie’s irreverent catchphrase peppers the script. Reminiscent of Munich in theme but more Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in design, the cinematography interposes archive newsreel with carefully calibrated period footage (Affleck says he’ll shoot on film until the day it dies). It looks spot-on, right down to the ghastly costuming (beards and bowl-cuts abound). The music used in the film’s denouement is borrowed from Tony Scott’s underrated hostage drama Spy Game and there are bursts of 70s and 80s pop hits.
It all contributes to the immersive effect of this fascinating and often exhilarating trip back into history.