Argo was never meant for the screen. It was a convenient screenplay plucked from a stack of other forgettable titles and commissioned for pre-production. Simply because the shooting locales demanded a Middle Eastern setting, this was perfect for CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck).
Tasked with bringing home six US citizens who had been holed up in the Canadian Embassy in Iran during the late 1970s revolution, Mendez concocts a plan to create a fictional movie, Argo, with the intention of withdrawing the American hostages as members of a location scouting crew. Dealing with numerous litigious hierarchical decisions, ably assisted by CIA colleague Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), Mendez faces a race against time to avoid an international disaster.
Argo is as near to faultless as a piece of entertainment can be; performances, narrative, and direction are all infallible. Ben Affleck has built on the potential shown with Gone Baby Gone and The Town to deliver a political thriller that transcends genre trappings to become a standalone classic.
As studiously thought out as the fictional movie-within-a-movie is, the real thing is also constructed in a fluid, movie-literate fashion. So we get a context-setting prologue that depicts storyboards morphing into archive footage and still photographs. Fully aware that audiences take the “based on a true story” pre-fix with a roll of the eyes, here he is making a statement that this is reality and he’s doing so with artistic integrity that adds weight to the unfolding drama.
As a director he seems to have mastered the art quite quickly, in particular the ratcheting of tension to beyond unbearable levels (hinted at with the brilliantly orchestrated finale to The Town). The multi-threaded plot seamlessly flows without losing any momentum, or to the detriment of character development. There’s a DePalma level of confidence with the camera here, like the wonderful single take transition during which a wine glass left on a waiter’s tray winds its way through to the kitchen to be placed beside a television broadcasting an update on the siege.
As an actor, Affleck also seems to have found his niche – the understated, stoic protagonist suits him much better than the cocksure joker of his previous life. It wouldn’t at all be surprising to find his name in the acting categories alongside the inevitable directing accolades next spring.
It clearly helps when you’ve got such an excellent cast to play against, and Argo most definitely has this in its armoury. You might be surprised to discover that it’s also an incredibly funny film, much of which is down to the brilliance of Alan Arkin’s long-in-the-tooth movie producer. Whether he’s bouncing off Affleck or the similarly excellent John Goodman, or uttering dialogue destined for T-shirt immortality (you’ll understand), his is a performance of dramatic and comedic clout. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston continues his rising career trajectory, saving most of his grandstanding dialogue for a final act containing a flurry of memorable speeches.
One moment in the film sums things up: while pitching around Hollywood to find people willing to be selfless in an industry obsessed with the idea of “me”, a discussion takes place between Affleck and Goodman. The question is raised about who the target audience of a particular film would be, to which the reply is “people with eyes”. That should be the same demographic who go and see this. Stunning.
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