Argo is the hotly anticipated new political thriller from director Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Town). Based on extraordinary true events of what became known as the Canadian Caper, Chris Terrio’s screenplay is adapted from a 2007 Wired article, “How the CIA Used A Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran” by Joshua Bearman and The Master of Disguise, Tony Mendez’s account of his role in the joint covert rescue by the Canadian Government and the United States Central Intelligence Agency of six U.S diplomats from Tehran, Iran in 1979. Argo opens in November 1979 with a thrilling early action sequence, which captures hordes of gun-wielding Iranian militants taking over the U.S. embassy and holding 52 Americans hostage. Six other Americans evade the takeover and hide out in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). If discovered, they would face death. Sixty-nine days later the CIA calls in Tony Mendez (Affleck), an extraction specialist, and he comes up with an ambitious front - the ‘best bad idea’ the country has - to get their stranded citizens out of Iran.Mendez’s scheme is to enter Iran under the guise of a film producer and supply the six Americans (which include characters portrayed by Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Taylor Schilling and Clea Duvall) with new identities, passports and job descriptions, and convince the defending militants they are a Canadian film crew ‘scouting locations’ for a newly-proposed science fiction film – an exotic Star Wars reboot named ‘Argo’.
Argo is an energetic film. It is engrossing from the opening frames and though the plot moves fast, Terrio’s screenplay ensures that none of the ensemble is wasted. We spend enough time with these characters to care about them, and genuinely hope that Tony can rescue his compatriots. It’s a life-or-death situation, and the final act suitably ups the suspense to heard-pounding, armrest-clasping effect.
But what is surprising is that Argo is also very funny. Not only does it work as a political insider - we see this situation analysed and Tony’s idea proposed to different levels of the CIA and U.S Government - but also works as a satire of Hollywood filmmaking.
The tonal shift in the middle does not interfere with or undermine the seriousness of the mission, and this is what makes Argo work as an entertaining cinematic experience. The idea was preposterous – and the CIA knew this – but what other options did they have? The good humour of secret national heroes Siegel and Chambers is a pleasure to watch and blends better than you’d expect with a gripping espionage tale in one of the world’s most dangerous locations.
Argo feels chillingly real. Whenever we see Tony and the U.S diplomats facing danger we genuinely fear for them. This is courtesy of some exceptional period set design, some convincing large-scale rioting and tense, claustrophobic interrogation.
Argo boasts strong performances across the board. Affleck impresses in some of his most mature work in front of the camera, Arkin (hilariously droll and the nails the cynical Hollywood-type) and Goodman (delightfully jovial) have a lot of fun together. The on-screen chemistry between them and Affleck is exceptional. Bryan Cranston helps Tony get the project green lit and remains in excellent form, Kyle Chandler has a small but memorable role and Scoot McNairy, so good in Killing Them Softly, is showing some real promise this year.
Rodrigo Prieto’s camera is constantly active and sweeping, providing nearly every sequence with a sense of urgency and energy. Argo has already been touted as one of this year’s Academy Award contenders – including the claim from Roger Ebert that it will win Best Picture - and deserves to be considered in multiple categories.
A patriotic and inspiring story, Argo is a gripping political thriller that proves that Ben Affleck is not only a talented filmmaker, but also one who continues to improve his craft. The history behind Argo was kept a secret for a long time but it makes for an extraordinary story, and it has been commendably transformed into one of the year’s most satisfying film experiences.
[rating=4] and a half.
Directed by: Ben Affleck Written by: Chris Terrio (screenplay) Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Michael Parks, Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, John Goodman
Argo, distributed through Roadshow Entertainment, has a wide release in Australia from October 25.
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.