Wednesday, 7 November 2012

LEEDS FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW: Argo


26th Leeds Film Festival Opening Gala @ Town Hall

Third time lucky, Ben Affleck has struck gold with Argo, which follows on from his earlier efforts Gone Baby Gone and The Town (both excellent) to be his biggest film to date, and his most important. I think this will walk away with Best Picture at the Academy Awards next year - let me tell you for why.

Based on a true story, which remained classified by the American Government until 1997, Argo dramatises the events of the 1979 US hostage crisis in Iran, and the attempt to rescue 6 foreign office workers who have separated from their colleagues and are hiding out in the Canadian Ambassador's house in Tehran. With convoluted ideas bandied around and then shot down, it's the wackiest idea yet that will win out: trained exfiltrator Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck)'s idea to construct a fake movie, entitled 'Argo', which will send them location spotting in Iran where he can pick up the six captives and assimilate them into his fake production crew and fly them back out to America. To do this he needs support from a major Hollywood studio - cue John Goodman and Alan Arkin - and support and cooperation from the CIA (channelled mainly through Bryan Cranston). All is progressing well, until at the final hour Mendez is informed the operation has been cancelled and there will instead be a military rescue for the captives. Defying orders, Mendez forges ahead with his plan and takes the six to the airport, where they must pass several check points with their fake passports, whilst at the same time the CIA and the White House rush to resume the original plans and the Iranian officials are closing down on the identities of the escaped Americans.

Affleck immediately makes the story accessible to the mainstream audience, but without dumbing it down. The voice over at the start tells the history and the background to the current situation, using a comic book-eque technique that will echo the storyboards later used in the film for the fake 'Argo'. Middle Eastern relations and government agency politics can be tricky and weighty viewing, but he manages to humanise the characters and the situation to make events not only easy to follow, but coherent in a global sense. This is a very talky, quippy film - a brilliant first time script from writer Chris Terrio - but there is great humour here too which is pitched perfectly, particularly from Goodman and Arkin, the comic relief duo of the film. You'll be shouting "ARGO FUCK YOURSELF" like Father Jack for weeks after, and for my benefit there was even a rights joke in there which I lamely cackawed at - "You're worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA." HAHAHAHHAHAHAHA... er, right?

A brilliant ensemble cast makes the film shine - as well as the fabulous Goodman and Arkin (who almost steals the show, with his delivery), I'm hoping Bryan Cranston can nab a Best Supporting nod as he was wonderful as the hard nosed yet loyal colleague at the CIA. Strong casting with the captive Americans in Iran too - Clea DuVall continues to bulk up her CV, Christopher Denham (Sound of My Voice), Tate Donovan (Damages) all great too. But it's the married couple within the group who make the biggest impact: Kerry Bishe as Kathy delivers the most engaging performance as she is the most vulnerable throughout, and her husband Joe (Scoot McNairy, Monsters) is generously allowed his own character arc - he goes from biggest sceptic to saviour, as his knowledge of the language allows him to confidently converse with the Iranian officials at the airport, and it's his selling pitch of the fake film that gets them on the plane. Overdone? Yes, but it's one of the most memorable and heart swelling moments of the film.

For all his skill behind the camera, oddly Affleck is dull in front of it. His portrayal of Mendez feels generic and bland, especially when thrown in with such alive and kicking characters. He's the integral cog in the operation, but lacks charisma and his marital issues in the background feel tacked on and under developed - whether this was Affleck's intention to make his character understated, but you can't help but feel another actor cast could have turned this role into an Oscar winning performance. The Academy will take note with Argo but Affleck will be circling the Director's award instead.

It's interesting watching this film on two accounts: it's a very North American story, about the rescue of Americans but the lengths the Canadian Government went to protect them as well (there have been complaints this has been watered down in the film, which led to Affleck having to change the post script at the end of the film just before release), but also to see how much Affleck has changed from the true life events. Affleck is not a political director in the same way his co-producer here George Clooney has become - his focus is more on the thrill and suspense element of the drama, which is why he uses the real life event as a platform for this drama. As you watch the final half an hour unfold with Mendez and the captives in the airport, in the moment the suspense is electric and you're fully invested in everything he throws at you - from missing paperwork in the airport to the CIA flying around wild trying to get a sign off from President Carter ("REFRESH THE COMPUTER!"). It's impressive how effectively he manages to pull this off, when you know there is no real danger here of them not getting away successfully. And having slept on it, you'll smile in bemusement at the contrivances, but you'll remember those emotions he brought out in you, and that's what makes Argo a triumph. I won't deny I didn't shed a tear of pure relief when they are up in the air, and they clear Iranian skies.

There are other scenes of excellence too: a great opening scene as the US Embassy is first attacked is frightening and disorientating, and a read through of the Argo script - complete with actors in sci fi costumes - is inter cut with an Iranian woman on the television delivering Iran's statement to the world's press. It's very well put together - a brilliant mixture of archive footage and reconstruction, and the pace zips along - two hours just fly by. The 1970s era is captured perfectly too and I loved the retro credits at the beginning, and the photos of the real life individuals compared to their fictional equivalents at the end - they are so alike.

It's an astonishing real life story, so Affleck is already 50% of the way there before he's begun, but through dramatic embellishment he has made an enjoyable film of real power. He is the one of the most exciting and classy directors working today, and I still think there is more in him yet - Argo will not be his best, but it's his most complete work to date.

A film about film making, by a man who knows how to make films.



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