Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Alda, Scoot McNairy, Bryan Cranston
Running time: 120 mins
Release: November 7th
Describing something based on a real events as a high-concept thriller is an inherently weird enterprise, but that’s the only way to talk about Argo; a movie with a story that’s only plausible because it actually happened.
In November 1979, Iranian militants stormed the American embassy in Tehran as a response to U.S. support for the recently deposed Shah. As they are storming the building, six civil servants escape to the (relative) safety of the Canadian Ambassador’s house. In order to get them out, the most credible plan the CIA have comes from ‘exfiltrator’—like infiltrating, but going out—Antonio Mendez (Affleck). He’s going to go to Iran, pretend the escapees are a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a movie, and then fly them out of there. Simple, right? In order to do this, he recruits a make-up artist (Goodman) and a washed up director (Alda) and they go about making Argo look as real as they can, very aware that the lives of not only the six houseguests rest on their success, but very likely that of the other 50 hostages still in the embassy.
The above story is delivered all at once as a wonderful, old-school thriller, a politically relevant morality tale, a fantastic tool for playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon and a reminder that Ben Affleck makes incredibly entertaining—if not especially deep or original—thrillers with decent to good dramatic moments.
If that seems an unwieldy sentence it’s because what Affleck does is rather hard to pin down. They’re tense, they’re fraught, they’re acted incredibly well, but they’re still fairly standard action flicks. Gone Baby Gone and The Town were good, and their leads (the first played by Affleck’s brother Casey and the second by Ben himself) were sympathetic and well drawn, but not particularly relatable.
Aside from the aforementioned comfort with action, Affleck proves very capable at managing an ensemble cast. Goodman and Alda as a comic-relief double act are fantastic without being trite, Bryan Cranston keeps everything ticking over at the CIA and the six escapees do an incredible job of being terrified without seeming hysterical. Scoot McNairy in particular is excellent, as the sceptic of the group who wants no part of Mendez’s insane plan. With this and Killing Them Softly, he has two excellent supporting roles from 2012 that could easily see him land a dark horse oscar nomination. It’s unfortunate that the weakest part of the ensemble is Affleck, as he does an excellent job of balancing the other performers. He just doesn’t carry his scenes with McNairy’s intensity, or Goodman’s charm.
As Argo is somewhat recent history, the ending is something a foregone conclusion, which is probably why some of the tension feels forced and a little cheesy. How Affleck gets to that conclusion is fantastic though, and with the exception of one very odd hotel sojourn this is a brisk, thrilling and entertaining piece of so-mad-it’s-gotta-be-true filmmaking.