Sunday, April 20, 2014


Say what you will about Ben Affleck as an actor – and with ‘Gigli’ on his CV, not to mention his casting as Bruce Wayne in the upcoming ‘Batman vs Superman’, there’s certainly enough material for the naysayers – what can’t be denied is that his career as a director is shaping up nicely.

‘Gone Baby Gone’ was a subdued, character-driven adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel graced with a prickly yet nuanced performance by Casey Affleck that took the casting beyond mere nepotism. ‘The Town’ stayed in the crime genre, this time based on a novel by Chuck Hogan, with Affleck starring as well as directing. Like ‘Gone Baby Gone’, it was notable for its literacy, attention to detail and considered performances. Both films were slow burn. The comparisons most critics made to 70s American cinema were deservedly made.

It was inevitable, then, that Affleck would make not just a film that expanded the touchstones of 70s American cinema further – here, the immediate frame of reference is the political thriller – but one that was actually set in the 70s. But unlike his previous outings, ‘Argo’ tells a true story. One that happens to be as ludicrously improbable as you could imagine.

The basic facts are: on 4 November 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran was seized by militants protesting against the overthrown Shah of Iran’s domicile in the US. Embassy personnel were held hostage; their ordeal lasted 444 days. Six people managed to escape and were given sanctuary by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. Their passage out of Iran was facilitated by CIA operative Tony Mendez, who passed them off as members of a film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi epic (parts of ‘Star Wars’, made two years earlier, had been shot in Tunisia).

It’s this element of the story that Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio find most engaging. You see, you can’t just say “hey, border patrol people, we’re a film crew” and not expect your credentials to remain unchecked. Even back then, there’d be enough buzz around a forthcoming movie for details to seep into the media and the popular consciousness. Thus it is that Mendez (played in unemotive fashion by Affleck) persuades his paymasters to fund a Hollywood production (albeit one that the plug will get pulled on the moment the fugitives are clear).

‘Argo’ starts with a tense recreation of the Iranian protest outside the embassy, the subsequent storming of the building and the hostage-taking. The escape of the six seems almost ludicrously easily, but takes nothing away from how palpable the tension is as the Canadian ambassador and his staff – risking a reprise of events at their own embassy – take them in. Mendez’s tasking with their exfiltration also makes for a detailed and immersive sequence, Affleck relishing the slow-burn approach of the 70s classics he so clearly loves.

Then Mendez hooks up with make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and fast-talking impresario Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and ‘Argo’ shifts up a gear and these unlikely team-mates race to complete ad hoc under-the-gun pre-production on an exotic sci-fi spectacular. A script is selected, its general awfulness outweighed by its desert setting; trade ads are rushed into print; a cast assembled; a press event stage-managed at a plush hotel. Affleck finds in the movie’s fake a film a perfect mirror for the falsity of Hollywood and ‘Argo’ attains, in its middle section, a level of sheer satirical brilliance that it can’t possibly hope to replicate for the rest of its not insubstantial running time.

With Chambers and Siegel having done their bit, it’s off to Tehran for Mendez and the real, life-or-death business of his rescue mission. ‘Argo’ starts to develop problems here. The transitions from hostage crisis to CIA think-tank shenanigans to Mendez’s bat-shit crazy (but brilliantly creative) scheme have a kind of breezy logic to them and are effected seamlessly. The shift from Hollywood satire to suspense thriller is less well-oiled. In fact, it’s more like changing from a high to a low gear without bothering to use the clutch. There’s a lurch as the scene changes to Tehranian hotel rooms and the Canadian embassy. Affleck’s staging of a sequence where the six leave the embassy under their new identities only to attract the attention of an antagonistic mob in a bazaar is evidently intended to ramp up the tension as a precursor to the film’s (genuinely suspenseful) airport finale, but there’s no clear point of view and the editing is messy.

The airport denouement (if that’s the right word: the film meanders on for a solid quarter of an hour afterwards) plays out against a team of militant Iranians painstakingly assembling shredded material at the US embassy in order to correlate the number of hostages in captivity. Will they identify the missing six before they’re safely onboard and the plane is in the air? Affleck milks it for all it’s worth, but the result is a white-knuckle piece of cinema for all that, armed militia chasing the airliner even as it taxis down the runway. Problem is, it never happened. Mendez and his charges experienced a delay in boarding on the day, but apart from that they were away scot free.

The other problem, that (to be fair) ‘Argo’ couldn’t have surmounted, is that for the fugitive six the stakes were lower than for the other embassy staff. Only two scenes – one as the embassy is occupied, and one that’s rather awkwardly shoehorned in at the mid-way point – address what the ordeal was like for the actual hostages, blindfolded, mistreated and never knowing from day to day whether they’d be summarily executed. In comparison, while the threat of discovery was very real, the six lived to a fairly decent standard in the Canadian embassy. Moreover, the importance of the Canadians’ role is relegated to a cursory single paragraph note just before the end credits roll.

This review started out by bigging up Affleck’s talents as a director and, despite its flaws, ‘Argo’ hits more high notes than bum ones. It’s further proof that Affleck behind the camera is an infinitely more appealing prospect than Affleck in front of it.


Elwood Jones said...

Affleck continues to impress me with his skills as a director, while I remain one of that small group of people who don't actually find his acting all that bad (unlike his counterpart Matt Damon).

This film in particular I found to be worthy of the throw away critic crutch of "edge of your seat" as the airport sequence (while more fantastical here) truly had me on edge the whole time, especially as it hinges on one phone call.

Good review

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for commenting, Elwood. Yeah, that airport sequence, from the group getting pulled into the security head's office to plane leaving Iranian airspace - clocking in, what?, 20 minutes - really earns the film its spurs.

And kudos, as I mentioned in the review, to Affleck's commitment to making the kind of slow-burn unpretentious movies that could have made their debut 40 years ago.