Review: Argo

Florence Smith-Nicholls 24 November 2012


Ben Affleck (15) 120 mins

Florence Smith-Nicholls is unsure whether she should clap, or shout “Argo fuck yourself”

“If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus.” The irony of this comment, at the end of BenAffleck’s Argo is particularly poignant, especially as the man being addressed orchestrated a somewhat theatrical CIA coup.

The premise of this political thriller is stranger than fiction: in 1979, the American embassy in Iran is taken by revolutionaries. Six Americans manage to escape to the official residence of the Canadian Ambassador, but with every day that passes the risk of their discovery becomes greater. Cue the appearance of a guardian angel in the form of Tony Mendez, an exfiltration expert with the kooky plan of staging a film project in order to create a ruse for their escape.

Were it not for scheduling issues, Brad Pitt would have been Mendez, so it was left to Ben Affleck to not only direct but take on the major role. This isn’t the first time he’s had to multitask: in his last film The Town Affleck also got involved both in front and behind the camera.

From this pattern it’s clear that he enjoys having a high degree of creative control, and he likes thrillers. The scope of Argo, spanning several continents and some highly emotive political history, is a far cry from his disturbingly titled directional debut I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney. From this 16 minute short in 1993 to the two hour saga of this year, Affleck has clearly developed a deeper maturity and subtlety which Argo largely attests to.

Toby Mendez is a rather sober character, but one whose sincere if unconventional approach pays off. Affleck never needs to raise his voice or resort to long self-indulgent inspirational speeches to save the day; his Mendez is one whose problems brew behind his dark eyes, with only the crutch of a nicotine addiction hinting at deeper stress. His thoughtful character is played off particularly effectively against the more gaudy personalities of Tinsel Town. To legitimise the pseudo-film, the protagonist calls upon prosthetics expert John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). The former, a jolly philanthropist, finds amusement in trying to authenticate a fake film in a fake world, and the latter is a wry cinema veteran and the creator of the trio’s motto: “Argo fuck yourself!”

One of the film’s greatest strengths is its pacing. The 120 minutes it takes to tell the tale of a movie within a movie are filled with tense, often claustrophobic sequences of the trapped six malaise with cabin fever or frustrated CIA workers crammed into beige offices. As a political thriller, camera movements in the aforementioned white collar scenes were apparently based on similar parts in All the President’s Men, rather aptly seeing as this was a 70s political drama. Of course the inevitable genre cliches make an appearance, including the use of the ‘walk and talk’ technique to demonstrate the busy lives of intelligence operatives reminiscent (to me at least) of The West Wing. The more delicately played themes of the film are where a fuller enjoyment can be derived. The opening, a pastiche of story boards, archive and new footage telling the recent political past of Iran could be seen as a comment on the mutability of history and the fragile line between fact and fiction that all those involved in the plot are wary of. The juxtaposition of scenes in Iran and America are also carefully weaved, as at one point when we are forced to confront the tacky triviality of a Hollywood read-through of the film script with the broadcast of the mortifying denouncement of the CIA by an Iranian woman. In the quest to create a grainy 1970s feel, Affleck even cut the frames of the film in half and then blew them up to 200%. Thus, the film itself is an imitation, as well as an adaptation of a true story.

Argo is a highly enjoyable film, but I almost feel guilty for enjoying it. As much as there is a strong sense of ‘politics,’ this is inevitably from a Western point of view. The original American involvement in installing the shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, thereby supporting an authoritarian and destructive regime, is mentioned but the full implications are not explored. With the title of the fake film as reference to Jason and the Argonauts, this is very much a self-congratulatory white, Western odyssey. This Argo would also be a science fiction film not unlike Star Wars or Planet of the Apes, but is unclear how the alien allegory really applies. The Iranians almost always seem to be a faceless mass. Ultimately, this is a tense and thought-provoking success story. There’s politics, there’s drama, but the heart of Argo definitely lies in North America and a semi-idealised vision of its intelligence service. It’s all just a circus, but I can’t decide whether it takes itself too seriously, or not seriously enough.

Florence Smith-Nicholls