At the Movies - Argo - review

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in 'Argo'.
Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in 'Argo'.
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Ever since sharing the stage with friend Matt Damon to accept the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for ‘Good Will Hunting’ in Hollywood in 1998, Ben Affleck has presented himself as somewhat of a paradox in the world of American cinema.

In 2003 he starred alongside Jennifer Lopez in the unforgettably and utterly awful ‘Gigli’ and in 2004 things didn’t get much better when he played the part of Ollie Trinke in ‘Jersey Girl’. The memories of 1998 were fading and fading fast.

Bryan Cranston as Jack O'Donnell in 'Argo'.

Bryan Cranston as Jack O'Donnell in 'Argo'.

Affleck continued to keep his head above water by appearing in instantly forgettable movies like ‘Surviving Christmas’ and ‘Man About Town’ until he started to find his way back on to the right path with the cult hit ‘Smokin’ Aces’ in 2006.

He would certainly have been forgiven for thinking that, at a mere 34 years-old, his best days were behind him.

But then came his directorial debut ‘Gone Baby Gone’, which starred younger brother Casey Affleck.

This was one of the most remarkable directorial debuts anyone had seen in years and when Affleck followed it up with gripping Boston crime thriller ‘The Town’ in 2010 it was clear that the once-crestfallen Ben was starting to be taken seriously again.

Enter stage right, ‘Argo’. The real-life story of how C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) dreamt up the plan to smuggle six ‘on the run’ Americans out of post-revolution Iran by convincing the Iranian Republican Guard, and anyone else for that matter, that they were a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a B-movie called ‘Argo’.

After the American embassy was stormed in 1979, the six American diplomats took refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran. They remained there for almost 80 days until Mendez arrived to safely guide them back home right under the noses of the very people who looking for them.

The CIA’s involvement in what was known as the ‘Canadian Caper’ was kept top secret until President Bill Clinton declassified the mission in 1997.

The real life exfiltration of the six Americans might not have been as tense or remarkable as Affleck’s latest offering but he’s right to embellish a little as it makes for one rip-roaring white knuckle ride.

In order to convince the Iranians that the six Americans were Canadian film-makers, the C.I.A. placed ‘Argo’ advertisements in magazines like ‘Vanity Fair’. If that wasn’t thorough enough, they set up their own film studio in Hollywood and even went as far as to acquire the help of real life make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman - ‘The Artist’ and ‘The Big Lebowski’), who worked on ‘Planet of the Apes’ and ‘Hallowe’en’.

For the eagle-eyed movies’ aficionados, there’s a cameo appearance for Iranian-born actor/director Rafi Pitts, who made such Iranian masterpieces as ‘The Hunter’ and ‘It’s Winter’.

To describe ‘Argo’ as a wondrous story would not be doing Affleck’s movie justice; it’s relayed with gilt-edged skill, masterful vision and an oh-so prominent script.

The film’s opening scene recreates the sense of raw panic that ensued when Khomeini-supporting Iranians stormed the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. The aggression with which the revolutionaries take the building is palpable and this is where Affleck impresses. He successfully counteracts the hostility of the baying crowd with the intensity and the anxiety experienced by those inside as they waited for the building to be taken over.

After this absorbing piece of plot construction, the audience’s heart rate is brought back down to normal levels with the revelation of how the C.I.A. came up with the idea to create the fake movie ‘Argo’. But if anyone thinks they are getting off lightly then they may think again because the film’s final act will almost certainly result in countless acts of synchronised buttock clenching in cinemas all over Ireland.

Mendez’s plan is described by ‘Argo’ producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin - ‘Little Miss Sunshine’) as having worse odds than a suicide mission but that’s what makes looking away from the movie’s finale impossible. It’s consuming, it’s tense and it will have you wriggling in your seat.

VERDICT: 4/5 - Outstanding performances abound from Affleck as Mendez; Arkin as Siegel; Scoot McNairy (‘Killing them Softly’ and ‘Monsters’) as one of the six Americans, Joe Stafford; and Bryan Cranston (‘Total Recall’ and ‘Drive’) as Mendez’s boss Jack O’Donnell. But the film’s star performer is its script, which is written by Chris Terrio and Joshuah Bearman. As all movie goers know, it’s Oscar hunting season and don’t be surprised if awards aplenty come a knocking for ‘Argo’. Affleck is back!