Argo is, in many ways, a collage of different genres, locations, textures, and characters. It is the perfect blend of nail biting tension and sharp humour, matching political drama of the highest order with tinseltown nonchalance and laughs. A wacky, “truth is stranger than fiction” tale is told carefully and considerately, with Ben Affleck more than proving his worth as director.
It’s 1979, and the people of Iran are enraged at the American government for granting asylum to the recently overthrown Shah of Iran. They demand his return, and in anger, a band of militants storms the American Embassy in Tehran, taking hostage more than fifty American citizens. Six employees of the Embassy manage to escape, and are taken in by the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Ben Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, an exfiltration specialist secretly hired to orchestrate the safe return of these six Americans, whilst plans are made to free those fifty or so still in the public eye. His idea is to put a fake film into production, in order to have it seem as though the escapees are in fact a team of Canadians scouting for science-fiction movie locations. They are each to play a specific role, from cinematographer, to scriptwriter, to production designer. All of this is done with the help of John Chambers (John Goodman), a makeup artist, and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who unsurprisingly provide the light relief for what is otherwise an intense thriller.
Each actor is perfectly cast, with Affleck taking to the role of bearded and bedraggled Mendez with an understated naturalism. He suitably fades into the background of each scene, allowing others to demand attention with their snappy remarks, jokes, or concerns over safety. His presence is far from sensational, and yet that is the point. He is the unsung hero, the ‘nobody’ with a good idea who will return to an ordinary life after the case is closed. In fact, no character stands out in particular over the rest, which makes sense when considering that the story revolves around the idea of a ‘team effort’. Garber, Goodman, Arkin, Bryan Cranston, and even Kyle Chandler, each play their parts engagingly, but never overwhelm with their presence. That is not to say that they are not memorable, though. Cranston is expectedly loveable as Jack O’Donell, Mendez’s supervisor, and it’s brilliant to see him offset Affleck’s stony stares with furrowed brows and passionate outbursts.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto does a fantastic job, giving a distinctive feel to each location. For scenes in Washington D.C. there is a clinical atmosphere, with steady shots, and a greyish-blue tone over everything. Conversely, over in Hollywood, colours are saturated to the point where yellows are startlingly vivid, and the light overbearingly bright. In Tehran, there is graininess to the picture, and a shakiness that makes things feel more out of control. Outside on the streets, many shots are framed to match real photographs from the 70s, thus adding to the documentary feel. And in the Canadian ambassador’s house, the light is dimmer and colours darker, emphasising an atmosphere of imprisonment. These varied textures work to stress the multitude of different people and places that were involved in the coup.
Supposing that most people already know the outcome of the case, it is the mixing of satire with suspense that keeps the audience engaged. The Hollywood segments are incredibly enjoyable, and explore the ignorance and greed of the industry, whereby excitement can be forged for a project through word of mouth and a few press events. Everything is a façade here, from the production company, to the posters, and the elaborate performance in LA obviously mirrors the performances of the fugitives as they walk the streets of Tehran pretending to be a film crew. The show put on in America also reflects the show that the Iranians put on for the cameras, burning flags in front of news reporters, and releasing public statements across tables. There is no doubting that the people of Iran are genuinely angry and upset, but they must stage their emotions in order to have their messages received loud and clear.
The CIA assume that out of the six fugitives, it will be Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) who will take charge of the situation, and yet it ends up being unassuming Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) who takes the lead and asks all the difficult questions that are on everybody’s minds. This, in a sense, mirrors the entire narrative of the film. The public, with their eyes fixed on the hostages still held at the Embassy, assume that the American government and the army will save the day, whereas behind the scenes it is the Canadian government, and a couple of unsuspecting individuals, who end up rising to the occasion. Argo is essentially a tribute to the nameless and faceless teams who ensure the safety of people without ostentatious reward. It is also an unapologetic comedy, and a top notch thriller, with genuinely nerve-racking moments that will have your heart racing. This jumble of emotions and experiences is what makes the film absorbing from start to finish.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★1/2