Thursday, 25 October 2012
FILM REVIEW: ARGO
Truth, as they say, is often stranger than fiction. And in Argo, Ben Affleck's third and most confident outing as a director, the truth – that of the clandestine CIA goings-on behind the American-Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1980 – is also far more entertaining than it has any right to be.
Argo is also gripping as it plays fast (and only slightly loose) with events which unfolded following the Iranian revolution where Iran's leader, the Shah, was replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini. The Shah fled to the U.S. and in protest, Iranians (mostly students) vented their anger on the American Embassy, storming the premises and setting the hostage crisis in motion which would continue for 444 days.
But not before six Embassy employees (character actors Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall and Scoot McNairy among them) managed to 'slip out the back' and seek refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).
Affleck captures these events so perfectly it's almost as though he and his cinematographer (Rodrigo Prieto) were there, making it difficult to discern what is actual footage from the time and what has been recreated. In fact, the period detail of the film – the clothes, the cars, and the hair, so much hair – is excellent; enough to effectively transport us back to 1979 but not so as to draw attention to itself.
The CIA's initial plan to get the six Americans out of Tehran? Bicycles. They'll deliver them to the Canadian Embassy and the six will simply pedal across the Turkish border to freedom.
But CIA exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez (Affleck, impressively sporting long '70s locks and beard), has another idea, the better bad idea if you will: he'll fly into Tehran posing as a Canadian film producer with plans to shoot a science fiction film in the country's sandy surrounds; the six fugitives will be issued with Canadian passports and fly out with Mendez as members of his film crew.
To successfully pull-off this subterfuge, Mendez heads to Hollywood and enlists the help of one-time ace producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin in fine, cantankerous form), and Oscar-winning make-up artist, John Chambers (John Goodman); the trio settling on the screenplay for Argo, a Star Wars clone which would seem perfectly suited to being filmed in the Middle East.
These Hollywood sequences provide Argo with a great deal of humour, and perhaps lulling us into a false sense of security, for once Mendez touches down in Tehran and the operation is set in motion, Affleck ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels: the third act of the film makes for some of the most gripping cinema of 2012.
The ending may never be in doubt (even if you don't know all that much about the Iranian hostage crisis - or this aspect of it which was revealed when CIA documents were declassified in 1997 - you can bet Hollywood doesn't make self-congratulatory films about the deaths of six Americans), but as they also say, it's the journey that matters, and Argo is a ripping yarn, gripping (and amusing) in the telling.