Ben Affleck’s surprise thriller Argo is a seemingly come-from-behind movie that took moviegoers and critics by storm.
With epics by Hollywood stalwarts such as Steven Speilberg’s Lincoln, or Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty vying for Oscar gold, Affleck feels like that punk kid trying to upstage the old guard.
But Argo has already become an award-season favourite, having won big at the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards and is expected to carry the Big Mo into the Academy Awards.
A quintessential life-is-stranger-than-fiction tale, Argo tells the true story of a daring, albeit ridiculous, escape plan involving six American hostages in Iran and an unorthodox CIA agent named Tony Mendez.
The movie opened on November 4, 1979 with images of furious Iranians in a spontaneous up-from-the-streets eruption against the yoke of US imperialism, who storm the US embassy in Tehran and take its employees hostage.
The protesters are seen churning to a slow boil outside, while inside, embassy employees feverishly destroy documents, as it dawns on them that the cavalry isn't coming. They're on their own.
But six members of the consular staff escape the embassy and eventually end up at Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor’s (Victor Garber) home where they are sheltered as supposed personal friends, knowing they might face public execution if they are caught.
This is where Tony Mendez steps in. While watching a few minutes of Planet of the Apes on TV, Mendez, the resident CIA exfiltration expert, contrives what agency head honchos grudgingly admit is “the best bad idea we’ve got”.
As part of the rescue mission, the six house guests would pose as a Canadian film crew who’ve travelled to Iran to scout a location for a science fiction epic. The plan would entail supplying them with fake Canadian passports and flying out from the airport right under the noses of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. As one skeptic observes, Mendez’s plan comes from the long-standing “so crazy it just might work” school of thought.
What ensues has the vibe of a classic caper movie ala Ocean's Eleven crossed with the political heaviness of Thirteen Days (2000).
It’s an enjoyable and thrilling movie, laced with a smart wit that depicts Hollywood at its most self deprecating best. Self deprecation being the appetizer of charm as Aaron Sorkin would say, but it sets its face disconcertingly against satire and mischief and veers into schmaltzy, American jingoism that is executed with just enough subtlety for it not to make you queasy.
Affleck, having already proved his directing chops in films such as Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), ups the ante handling one of the darker chapters of American history with velvet finesse. You can sense the tension, feel the beads of sweat, perhaps because those tensions haven’t gone away. And Affleck knows that.
As Mendez, Affleck elicits a scruffy sympathy, but it is John Goodman and Alan Arkin who steal the show. Their chemistry in portraying veteran Hollywood wisemen is what provides Argo with its best moments. Witty and cynical, their chemistry is sublime and feels genuinely real.
A highlight of the film has to be Farshad Farahat’s dynamite performance as a frenetic Revolutionary Guardsman at the airport who vividly illustrates the mistrust of the US at the time and which has metastasized over decades from that moment on.
But Hollywood has always had trouble with nuance when it comes to the Middle East. You’d think there would be room to acknowledge the complexity of Iran and the justice of many of its attitudes, but Argo at times feels like an attempt to reinforce old enmities and the cliché of the angry Iranian in the name of making an astute but ultimately hokey thriller.
Much of the movie shows Iran as a theocratic menace and Iranians as enraged mobs while it fails to provide any sane voices from Iran. There is that maid in the Canadian embassy who despite all their suspicions turns out to be on the side of the hostages, which comes as too little, too late. It’s a welcome little nugget, but not enough to offset the rest of the movie.
That said, Argo is by far Affleck’s best work. And while he, along with Katherine Bigelow, was snubbed in the Academy Award nominations in the director category, Aflleck has been winning accolade after accolade for his work, first at the SAG Awards, and just recently at the Director’s Guild of America.
But while it dazzles on so many levels, its binary view of history makes it fall just short of brilliant.