Recently the sight of violent mobs gathering outside foreign (particularly American) embassies in the Middle East has been a frightening, and frighteningly regular occurrence in the news. After a brief recap of recent Iranian history (inventively told using comic-book panels and voice over) we are taken inside the US embassy in Tehran on November 4th 1979, where just such a scene is happening.
A very large and vocal crowd has formed outside, and seem intent on storming the place. The gates won’t hold forever. The extremely worried staff members decide to burn and shred all the documentation they can before they can be stolen when the mob inevitable breaks through their defences.
It’s a tremendously effective opening sequence, really conveying the fear these people must have felt in these circumstances.
Six of the staff members escape unnoticed to the streets though, and seek refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. When word of this reaches the CIA, they know they have to get them out before they are discovered and executed as spies.
While it is initiated be a time of political turmoil, this rescue mission is what forms the bulk of ‘Argo’. It’s tasked to agent and expert in ‘exfiltration’ Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to formulate some kind of rescue plan. His idea is thus; enlist the help of Hollywood to create a fake movie production, and try to pass off the Americans in hiding as a Canadian film crew scouting for locations.
The film walks something of a tonal tightrope throughout as the Hollywood scenes all have a more light-hearted comedic tone to them, as Affleck tries, along with John Goodman’s make-up artist and a scene-stealing Alan Arkin’s producer, to sell a new Sci-Fi epic (or as they call it; ‘Star Wars rip-off’); the titular ‘Argo’. All the while the goings on in Iran are all of a life-threateningly serious kind. It manages this task admirably, with neither side of the story compromising the other. As the noose tightens on the operation, the film becomes ever more nail-bitingly tense.
Ben Affleck has come a long way in the last few years, from being a punchline to an acclaimed director of 3 great thrillers now, and this is his best yet. You can’t blame him for handing himself the lead role, who is nominally the ‘hero’ of the piece but not a showy role. He gives an acceptable performance but it’s behind the camera where his real talents seem to lie. ‘Argo’ is infused with a sense of the period, from the look and style of the characters (including background objects) to the camera work and editing.
As is likely for any film based on a remarkable true story, ‘Argo’ will probably play best for those who have no knowledge of the real events being portrayed (as I did). One trip to Wikipedia after viewing could lead to some disappointment upon learning which parts were fabricated, particularly as ‘Argo’ seems to pride itself on its accuracy. None of this though, can impede ‘Argo’s entertainment value.