“Argo” was the title of a screenplay to a cheap Star Wars wannabe that landed on Hollywood’s collective desk in the late 1970s. A sci-fi action movie set on a dusty, intergalactic terrain that saw good vs evil play out in broad strokes, to be filmed amid the violence-ravaged scenery of Iran by a Canadian production house. The film was ultimately never made because this is actually the story to a now declassified CIA operation involving the rescue of six American nationals from Iran after they escaped an embassy ambush in 1980. With the help of the Canadian government as well a pair of old guard Hollywood stalwarts, the mission’s success and failure ultimately hinged on everyone’s ability to sell this ludicrous tall tale as one of utmost reality. The rest is history.
Directed by Ben Affleck (The Town), Argo is a dramatisation – one expects Hollywood to amp up the theatre of such a story, despite its all too real backdrop – of these events. It is a pulse-racing thriller, the kind of which Hollywood all too rarely takes a risk on. Much like Moneyball or Erin Brockovich from prior years, Argo exemplifies the best kind of majestic moviemaking aimed most squarely at adults who get less thrills from shiny-armoured superheroes than the young men whose pocket money lines Hollywood studio coffers. Affleck has crafted a magnificently tense experience out of Chris Terrio’s fast-paced, one-liner strewn screenplay (Argo is occasionally quite hilarious), which is based on the article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman, and the book The Master of Disguise by the film’s protagonist Tony Mendez.
Mendez is played in a suitably understated, steely way by Affleck (let’s ignore that Mendez is, er, Hispanic), who decides to undertake this risky rescue mission using the rather ludicrous concept of a fake movie production with the help of his supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston, Drive), Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine), and make-up effects master John Chambers (John Goodman, The Artist), against the wishes of Presidential Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan (Kyle Chandler, Super 8). Amongst the US embassy officials hiding out at the residential home of the Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber, Titanic), are Tate Donovan (The O.C.), Clea DuVall (Identity), and Scoot McNairy (Killing Them Softly).
Yes, it all sounds positively labyrinthine, but it’s actually rather easy to follow. For Affleck, third time certainly looks as if it could be the charm with Oscar. Argo, for which he could win both directing and producing Oscars for (alongside George Clooney, who also produced), represents everything that the Academy typically goes for and I can’t say I won’t chuckle at being able to call Ben Affleck, of all people, a three-time Oscar winner. Similarly Oscar-bound should be the work of William Goldenberg’s editing, crisply layering the strands into frantic position, the photo-accurate production design of Sharon Seymour, and the impeccable tailoring of costume designer Jacqueline West, who exquisitely blends flared lapels, brown and beige suits, and high-groomed Hollywood glamour into a beguiling whole.
The faux production of Argo fooled a lot of people, but the real Argo that’s landing in cinemas now shouldn’t be mistaken as anything other than a spellbinding, old-fashioned thriller. I’ve got sweaty palms and an elevated pulse to prove that it’s one of the year’s very best films.
Argo is released in Australia on October 25th
Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Kyle Chandler, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Michael Parks, Chris Messina, Kerry Bishe, Page Leong, Christopher Denham, Zeljko Ivanek, Rory Cochrane, Adrienne Barbeau, and Philip Baker Hall.