Actor turned director, Ben Affleck, follows up his critically acclaimed Gone Baby Gone and The Town with Argo, an intense thriller that’s fraught with tension.
Argo is based on a declassified true story from 1979. When the Iranian revolution in Tehran led to the storming of the US embassy, diplomatic employees were taken hostage. Six people escaped, finding refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. Argo tells the incredible story of a mission to rescue these six individuals using a sci-fi film-making cover story. CIA exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), builds a network of Hollywood contacts before heading to Iran on a phony location scope in an effort to smuggle the escapees back to the US.
Argo begins and ends with two powerful sequences crammed with nail-biting tension. The attack on the US embassy, that opens the film, showcases short takes and intense cross-cutting of simultaneous action both inside and outside the embassy to thrilling effect. As diplomatic procedures descend in to chaos and the rioters move in closer, Affleck creates breathtaking tension.
The film reaches it’s climax with another, longer, thrill sequence that tops the opener for acute and uncomfortable suspense. Here Affleck uses a profusion of quick close-ups to convey the characters’ anxiety, again using simultaneous action to heighten the tension.
In a film with sequences of such intensity, an injection of light relief is essential and Argo’s middle portion smoothly blends thrills with both comedy and satire. As an escape plan, the film-making ruse seems pretty implausible, despite it’s truth - something the film plays on for comic effect. ‘This is the best bad idea we’ve got sir,’ says O’Donnell in favour of the plan.
This Hollywood focused portion of the film, introduces us to two of the film’s most entertaining characters - make-up and prosthetics artist John Chambers and producer John Siegel, played superbly by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Throughout the film, and especially here, Argo’s script from Chris Terrio is witty and intelligent. Satirising the film industry, Argo becomes instantly appealing to anyone with an opinion about Hollywood - ‘So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big-shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in,’ says Siegel.
But Affleck doesn’t let comedy run away with Argo and instead litters his film with tension and uncertainty from start to finish. Scenes inside the Ambassador’s house feel claustrophobic and pressurised as Affleck crams the escapees into small spaces and packs the dialogue with raised voices and interruptions. An excursion to scope out movie locations feels just as claustrophobic, the shots filled with extras in a cramped and busy marketplace.
Affleck gets the best from his high calibre cast. Scoot McNairy (Killing Them Softly) gives a powerful performance as the clear thinking but terrified Joe Stafford, while a raft of familiar faces make small parts robust and compelling. Ben Affleck also shows his acting muscle as Mendez. Despite being covered in a raft of seventies of facial hair, Affleck delivers masses of emotion through facial expressions alone. A flicker in his eyes and a twitch in his cheeks reveal much about Mendez’ nerves and enforced composure.
Visually, Argo is a joy to watch. Seventies hues are emulated neatly and the attention to detail is extraordinary. The closing credits compare shots from the film with historical images and the similarities are striking, from a man’s body hanging from a crane, to rioters scrambling over the embassy walls. Argo’s backgrounds are brimming with detail - from angry crowds to a busy Tehran KFC - that make the film visually rich and remarkable to watch.
Argo is not perfect - it could easily end five minutes earlier than it does. But
while Argo messes with the timing of events for dramatic effect, Affleck makes a strong attempt to ground the story in fact, opening on storyboards that provide a brief introduction to the recent history of Iran. Neither does the film pass any real judgements about the politics of the time.
The verdict? Argo is packed with tension, including two of the best thrill sequences seen in recent years. Brimming with high calibre performances and stunning visuals, Argo is a must see film of 2012.
Running Time: 120 minutes