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Film review: ARGO, from Built For Speed

For those who grew up in the 1970’s but were too young to have first-hand recollection of the Vietnam war, the Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979 was the first time we had witnessed America have its nose bloodied. The events at the US embassy, where Iranian revolutionaries took 52 embassy staff hostage, occupied the news for over a year.

Less well known (mainly because it has, until recently, been classified information) was the fate of six embassy workers who escaped the building when it was stormed but found themselves marooned in Tehran.  Their story and the bizarre CIA operation that sought to liberate them is the subject of Director Ben Affleck’s latest film Argo.

Having exhausted all other options to get the six – who were hiding at the Canadian ambassador’s home – out of Iran, CIA agent Toni Melendez (Ben Affleck) hatched a cover story in which he and the six embassy staff would pose as Canadians filmmakers scouting exotic middle eastern locations to use in a Star Wars like sci fi film. To reveal that they were Americans from the embassy would have meant imprisonment or death.

With this film Affleck confirms his credentials as one of the finest directors around.  Argo is a remarkable combination of genuinely funny movie industry satire, tense espionage thriller and absorbing political drama.

Just as importantly this is a fine character piece with vivid portrayals of the people involved from the embassy staff to the Hollywood filmmakers to the sweaty CIA operatives. There’s wonderful performances from Alan Arkin as a hilariously cynical Hollywood producer and John Goodman as make-up expert John Chambers who was most famous for working on Planet of the Apes.  Affleck himself is also fine in a restrained role and there’s excellent support from Bryan Cranston among others.

Affleck goes to great lengths to authentically evoke the late 70’s setting as he incorporates terrific songs from the era, actual TV news footage from that time and creates a grainy look apparently achieved by shooting on regular film and blowing the frames up 200%.

Despite being about an American rescue mission this is, thankfully, not a one-eyed American flag waver.  The film clearly informs us that the Islamic revolution and unrest in Iran resulted from opposition to the brutal regime of the US-backed Shah.

If there’s any criticism of this film it’s that Affleck takes a fair amount of dramatic licence with events.  Although he mostly avoids gratuitous action movie clichés he does try to up the tension toward the end with some unlikely coincidences and a chase sequence that jars with the general tone of the film.

For the most part though, this is a fascinating story told with the right balance of humour and sober reflection and justifiably has people talking Oscars.

 

Nick’s rating: Four stars.

Classification: M

Director(s): Ben Affleck

Release date: 25th Oct 2012

Running time: 120 mins.

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