Sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction. Argo is one such story, in that it’s so ludicrous it couldn’t have been made up. During that glorified dick waving competition known as the Cold War, when the U.S government instigated coups and regime changes every other day, it sometimes found itself needing to get its people out of unfriendly situations in a hurry. Argo is the story of one such exfiltration mission, and I’m glad to say that it’s a fine example of how an espionage thriller should be done.
Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, Argo owes it’s success to it’s star-studded cast which includes veterans like John Goodman as the real life makeup guru and C.I.A moonlighter John Chambers, and Alan Arkin as old-school Hollywood producer Lester Siegel. Bryan Cranston also makes an appearance as C.I.A supervisor Jack O’Donnell, who, together with Affleck as exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, creates a nice contrast between the hard nosed, no nonsense government men and the almost goofy antics of the Hollywood movie moguls they’re cooperating with. The acting is virtually beyond reproach, and is a testament to Affleck’s expert casting choices.
Also worth mentioning is the unique visual style of the film. Everything, from costumes to locations to tech, is faithfully recreated and the attention to detail is profound. It might have been my imagination, but I even thought I saw some 70’s-esque grainy quality in the picture itself. These effects weave seamlessly together to produce a visually engrossing film which keeps the audience rapt, and makes the 2 hour run time feel significantly shorter. The only visual issue I take with the film is that several shots occasionally zoomed out in order to show a sweeping landscape or massive structure, but instead of maintaining the consistent visual style, these shots were blatantly, not to mention rather poorly, computer generated and distracted me momentarily. Although admittedly small, they were substantial enough to jar me back to reality and make me realize that I was sitting in a theater watching some flashing lights on a wall; always an unfortunate occurrence when the objective of a film like Argo is to build and maintain immersion.
If I had had to select one key element that made the film was so successful, it would be the juxtaposition of the vastly different tones of the first and second acts. In the film’s opening act, it’s established that there is an issue of national security in Tehran, and that it needs to be solved quickly and quietly. The interim is filled with Mendez flying to Hollywood to assemble a team of quirky and engaging characters in order to pice together is unlikely escape plan. The dialogue was snappy and humorous and could have easily made for a successful, comical satire of the film industry as a stand alone piece. In the second act however, when Mendez travels to Iran to put his plan into action, the tone shifts gears from comical to darkly tense with an almost audible clunk. Instead of coming across as inconsistent, however, the shift serves to emphasize that the fun and games are over and that shit is definitely getting real.
The amazing thing about Argo is that it manages build suspense and make clear how much is at stake without a single bullet being fired or anyone being killed during the entire course of the film. Rather, the suspense stems from the implications of what would happen if the plan were to be discovered. The film is rife with incredible, tension building scenes, namely the bazzar and airport security sequences, which are exactly what an espionage thriller should consist of.
Argo was, above all else, a fun experience. It was well worth the price of admission, which is more than I can say for a lot of films in theaters nowadays. It is clear that Affleck has proved himself a capable director. The only pitfall in his success, however, is that all of his future works will inevitably compared to Argo. Not a bad thing in itself, but it would be a shame indeed if such a talented director were to peak so early in his career. Go see the film, and remain cautiously optimistic about Affleck’s future in the industry.