Saturday, 9 February 2013

Argo

Academy Award Nominations: 7

·         Best Picture
·         Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin)
·         Best Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio)
·         Best Film Editing (William Goldenberg)
·         Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat)
·         Best Sound Editing
·         Best Sound Mixing

Amidst the chaos of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, six American embassy staff manage to escape the US embassy and take refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. However, with Iranian guards going from home to home searching for American “spies” and the embassy captors piecing together shredded evidence which shows there are six American workers missing from their hostages, they need an escape route from Iran quickly. Enter the state department, and specifically CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, who comes up with a plan: He and the six embassy staff are producers on a science fiction called Argo, and are location scouting around Iran for a foreign paradise in which to shoot. Can they pull the wool over a militant Iranian guard’s eyes?

Ben Affleck has turned from Daredevil failure into Hollywood’s hottest director. He’s yet to produce a dud: Gone Baby Gone (2007) was a police procedural with something more, becoming a study of human nature, behaviour, and moral ambiguity. The Town (2010) was a further development of his skills, producing a crime story that stands out from the rest thanks to a host of spot-on performances. Now he returns with Argo, based on the true story of the “Canadian caper” which saw six embassy workers pose as a film crew to flee revolutionary Iran. It’s a fascinating story, one that had to be taken more seriously than it seemed to create drama and tension, and I’m pleased to say Affleck has delivered with aplomb.

Argo is a tricky beast, enveloping a ludicrous plot within a hyper-serious political drama, something which could only possibly have come from real life. So while there is a real life template, there was still a fine balance that needed to be delivered, and Affleck more than delivers here. For 80% of this film, it’s a serious drama that has you gripped based on whether these innocent Americans can escape Iran in time. For the other 20% though, it’s a whimsical story about how a man from the CIA teamed up with a make-up artist and an aging producer to create the illusion of filming a Star Wars rip off in Iran and how shaky the entire plan to extract the trapped US workers was, and then that the credit to the plan had to go entirely to Canada and Tony Mendez couldn’t claim his reward for a successful mission because the entire mission was classified immediately following its conclusion, only being declassified during the Clinton administration. The question is then, why has a film about this only now come to fruition? It’s the story of how America, and in particular Hollywood, saved the day. It’s perfect fodder for award season, and I’d say Affleck is a genius for being the first one to realize its potential and capitalise on it.

That bring said, it still takes a lot of excellent performances to pull this off, and it makes me smile that the only man Affleck considered being able to pull off the leading man role was himself. This is why I like Affleck as director; no-one was giving him the roles he wanted to play, so he went out and made roles for himself. He’s given himself a stage on which to shine and he’s done so again in Argo playing Mendez, combining seriousness with an aloofness that gives his character credibility and depth. Michael Parks, John Goodman and Kerry Bishé were cast after their amazing performances in Red State and they justify Affleck’s casting, especially Bishé as Kathy Stafford, as they all deliver true to life performances. Alan Arkin is also notable as producer Lester Siegel and delivers the kind of performance that got him the Best Supporting Actor accolade for Little Miss Sunshine and has seen him nominated again amidst a strong field. One notable exception in that field though is Bryan Cranston, who since his starring role in Breaking Bad has started taking these supporting actor roles in various films and has been shining. He did so in Drive, and does so again here, arguable better than Arkin, but alas Cranston is overlooked despite a strong performance and will return to Breaking Bad with more cache.

The look of the film is sharp as well, capturing aptly the hustle and bustle of busy Iranian markets and daily life, as well as subtly observing the Americans trying to get on with their lives as the Canadian ambassador tries his best to stay calm in an increasingly intense situation. Affleck’s direction, combined with Rodrigo Prieto’s camerawork, create a classy looking thriller which doesn’t intrude in the character’s lives or interfere with the story. Simply, this is a document of the period captured superbly.

Overall, Argo is fantastic. I can’t really say more than that. I can’t find fault in it despite having gone over it countless times in my head for the last few days, it’s an engaging story with likeable characters that creates humour, drama, suspense and real emotion. The look is spot on, the music is spot on, the acting is spot on, and it’s immensely enjoyable with tremendous re-watch value. I can’t think of a more perfect film this year.

Rating: *****

Argo was released on 7th November 2012 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.