Like an effective fake identity, a decent escape movie has to be carefully constructed. We have to care about the characters. We have to understand how high the stakes are. We have to know, deep in our gut, the dire consequences waiting for those attempting to escape.
In Argo, the consequences of failure are clearly defined. It’s 1979, and in the wake of a violent uprising in Iran, the US Embassy is stormed by insurgents. During the ensuing chaos, six American diplomats escape from the occupied building, leaving 52 of their colleagues behind. The six escapees find refuge at the home of a Canadian ambassador, but it’s only a matter of time before they’re discovered.
At CIA headquarters over in Washington, various men in suits go over possible plans for their rescue. One is to somehow give them bikes and let them peddle 200 miles to the Turkish border. Another is to provide them with fake identities as teachers or aid workers, but both are quickly put aside.
Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), who specialises in spiriting people out of critical situations. Inspired by an airing of Battle For The Planet Of The Apes on television, Mendez comes up with his own plan: set up a fake Hollywood movie production, give the six people stuck in Tehran false identities as filmmakers, and sneak them out of the country.
Argo is at once a great Hollywood escape flick, a dry comedy, tense drama and compelling historical document. Those are things achieved by many great movies, but comparatively few get the balance right. Argo strikes just the right pitch between artifice – slick dialogue, live-wire characters and moments where documents are scrutinised by suspicious men with beards – and something approaching a truthful account of just how messy and frightening the situation in late 70s and early 80s Iran must have been.
From its superb opening title sequence, in which the movie’s put in its historical context through a series of storyboards, Affleck directs with confidence. Given that Argo’s based on true events, you might think that its story will hold few surprises, particularly if you’ve read the book or Wired magazine article on which it’s partly based. But because the movie contextualises its events so well – unlike, say, a movie like Black Hawk Down, Argo tells us precisely why the deadly situation occurs – we understand within the first ten minutes just how much danger the six diplomats are in.
From a remarkably tense opening siege – which almost matches John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 for nightmarish urgency – to screenwriter Chris Terrio’s numerous ticking clocks (one of them involving a legion women and children gradually piecing shredded documents back together), Argo’s drama gradually builds.
Although Affleck places himself in the lead role of CIA ‘exfiltration’ expert Tony Mendez, this casting isn’t as self-indulgent as it might seem; Mendez is necessarily a restrained man of tempered emotions. In his line of work, everyday life is a poker game, and he remains an enigmatic, quiet presence.
Affleck instead allows his supporting players to provide the charisma, and he’s assembled a sublime cast for Argo. There’s Alan Arkin as grouchy, smart-mouthed old-school movie producer Lester Siegel, John Goodman as Hollywood effects legend John Chambers and Bryan Cranston as a granite-faced CIA suit.
Then there are the ‘house guests’ themselves. Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane and Clea DuVall are almost unrecognisable, buried as they are under a selection of fat-rimmed glasses, moustaches, beards and side partings (though I should point out that Ms DuVall has the glasses and the side-parting, but not the facial hair). Their performances, though, are never less than believable, even if their characters are only briefly sketched in.
As Argo’s story progresses, its tone repeatedly shifts. With the crisis unfolding in Iran, we watch Mendez verbally joust with the grey-faced men of the CIA and the government, before heading to Hollywood. Here, Argo moves from thriller to comedy drama, as Mendez first has to convince grumpy producers and filmmakers to help him stage his fake movie. “You want to come to Hollywood like a big shot and not actually do anything?” John Goodman’s effects man asks. “Then you’ll fit right in.”
Affleck clearly enjoys the numerous barbs in Terrio’s script, and a script read-through of Argo – the low-rent Star Wars knock-off he’s chosen as his fake movie – is brilliantly staged, all terrible sci-fi costumes, champagne and Van Halen playing on the stereo.
The excesses of Hollywood are then sharply contrasted with the brutality of Iran, with its public executions and riots, and Argo provides a convincing snapshot of late 20th-century history. The movie’s already come under some criticism for its sidelining of the Canadian government’s involvement in its events, but although Argo’s facts may be occasionally fuzzy, its eye for period detail is impeccable.
Admittedly, the movie could be described as another drama calculatedly made to gain Oscar attention – it’s set in the past, it’s themes are uplifting, and its jokes at Hollywood’s expense are more like the jibes a comedian might make at a private dinner party than cutting satire.
But as the tension builds to nail-biting heights in the final act, it’s difficult to fault just how well constructed Argo is. We care about the characters. We understand how high the stakes are. And we know, deep in our gut, the dire consequences waiting for those attempting to escape.
Argo’s out in UK cinemas on the 7th November.
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