Dir: Ben Affleck, US, 2012, 120 mins
Review by Dan Collacott
Affleck’s last film as director, The Town, was a pulpy yet sophisticated heist movie. For Argo, he treads a different path with the dramatisation of the 1980 joint CIA-Canadian government operation to extract six fugitive American diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran (during the hostage crisis).
Affleck stars as unflappable CIA “exfiltration expert” Tony Mendez, the man responsible for the plan to smuggle the embassy workers out of Iran under the guise of filming a fake sci-fi movie (Argo).
A stellar supporting cast provide some welcome light relief from the hostage plotline. These include Bryan Cranston as wisecracking CIA maverick Jack O’Donnell, who gamely fights Mendez’s corner. John Goodman also ably pitches in as legendary industry FX expert John Chambers. He buddies up with the excellent Alan Arkin as no-nonsense filmmaker Lester Siegel. With the help of these two Hollywood players, Mendez is able to dupe the Iranians into thinking he is really making a sci-fi film, by convincing them that he is looking at filming locations in Iran and that the fugitives are part of the crew.
The film itself is beautifully shot and acted, although creaking under the weight of it’s own claustrophobic drama and authentic realism. You can tell from the credit sequence just how closely the actors resemble the stranded embassy workers from the time. In fact, the film does an exceptional job of mirroring the original events, right down to reproducing newsreel images.
Despite the eagle-eyed attention to detail, it is hard to empathise with the plight of the six fugitives. This is largely because most of their time in Iran is spent comfortably holed up in the Canadian Embassy. But the main problem is that each and every one of them is very cold, unlikeable and difficult to sympathise with. Granted the final scenes do offer a little redemption, but not enough to make their fate anymore interesting. The film is also not helped by the fact that despite his brooding and noble posturing, Affleck barely cracks his makeup over the whole ordeal. You only want the operation to be a success because you are rooting for the ensemble cast and because you want the baddies to lose.
Argo artistically delivers many elements that will blow many critics away, but for me the film has very little warmth, and the drag in the middle sacrifices any tension built up at the start. Sadly, I would have preferred to watch the Star Wars rip-off the operation is based around rather than slogging through to this film’s tediously inevitable outcome.