views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Argo (15)
Cineworld, Shaftesbury Avenue
22nd October 2012

★★★★★

On 4th November, 1979, the US embassy in Iran was captured by unhappy locals when a peaceful protest degenerated into something far more violent. The majority of diplomats were rounded up and held as hostages, but during the commotion, six managed to escape and go into hiding. Unable to find safe passage out of Iran by themselves and putting their hosts in extreme danger, it was decided that against all odds, a rescue mission had to be launched to get the six home. Argo is based on the strange but true story of how the CIA tried to do just that, by pretending to make a movie.

Now, if you're not a history buff, don't worry. And if you don't follow politics, that's also fine. The film opens by giving you a basic outline of what prompted the tensions to arise, contextualising the entire story for you. In all conflict, there are always failings on both sides and in Argo, that point is made very clearly. It's thankfully not the piece of propaganda it could have been, it's instead a story about the individuals caught up in the goings on. The focus is very much on the people, not the politics.

Alan Arkin and John Goodman bounce off each other well, playing film-maker Lester Siegel and special effects artist John Chambers. For the majority of this film, you would need something a damn sight sharper than a machete to cut the tension, but in the other moments, Arkin and Goodman inject plenty of comedy and together with Ben Affleck, help establish the film's crude but funny catchphrase.

Affleck himself, playing ex-filtration expert Tony Mendez, does a good job on both sides of the camera. When he lets Tony's poker face fall, revealing a deep sense of responsibility to the Americans he is trying to help get home, you can't help but warm to the character.

Having played a stressed out father in both Malcolm In The Middle and more recently Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston again plays a character under a lot of pressure. In Argo he takes on the role of Jack O'Donnell, Tony's line manger, stuck between those making high level decisions and those expected to make them happen. Cranston is unsurprisingly wonderful, playing Jack convincingly and delivering some great one liners.

Grainy footage, particularly in the wider shots, helps set the film in its time, back in the late 70s and early 80s. Particularly canny casting and make up not only give the characters the right period feel, but make them look a lot like the real people on whom the film is based. If you don't believe me, stick around for the closing credits, it's a revelation.

Although the casual viewer will not find the mix of characters lacking, it is a shame that John and Zana Sheardown have been seemingly erased from history. Along with fellow Canadian diplomats Ken and Pat Taylor (Victor Garber and Page Leong), they risked their lives to shelter the fugitive Americans. The film shows all six staying with the Taylors, when in fact Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham), his wife Cora (Clea DuVall) and colleague Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) stayed with the Sheardowns.

Some other details have been lost - such as how the group ended up in the Canadian compound in the first place - but the editorial decisions are sound. Historians may wince a few times, but whenever a little murmur of history is lost, it has been politely asked to step aside to make a better blockbuster. This is no roughshod Braveheart, there's more respect here.

Some Hollywood additions work better than others - the argument started by Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane) over whether to follow the fake movie escape plan adds to the tension, even though the group were immediately in favour of that plan in real life. A chase scene feels a little like the hackneyed trope it is, however on the first viewing, you are too engrossed to notice or mind. Even the Apollo 13-esque moments are forgiveable.

And that is why this film succeeds - it pulls you in. It starts by giving you the Cliffs notes you need to understand the background to the film, admits neither side is blameless, then swiftly makes you genuinely care about the fates of the individuals involved. For the 120 minutes, you are on the edge of your seat, hoping for a happy ending, in the face of all improbability and absurdity.

Political thrillers may not normally be box office winners, but although the film is steeped in history, it is predominantly a very human tale. The guilt of Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) at persuading his wife, Kathy Stafford (Kerry Bishé) to stay in Iran when she thought it was time to get out is just as important to the viewer as the clashes taking place between world leaders. We understand the politics, but it is the individuals who really capture our imagination.

Ultimately, this is an uplifting film, which draws attention to an interesting and largely unknown part of American history. The end credits show a series of stills juxtaposed with real photographs, illustrating just how closely some of the film reproduced historical events.

Argo very comfortably nets five stars and deserves to do well in the awards ceremonies next year. Affleck is certainly more than just a pretty face and whilst we wouldn't wish him purely off screen, he should continue to spend some time behind the camera as he's certainly proven his directorial skills with three for three.

Argo was released in the UK on 7th November 2012.

Nearest tube station: Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly, Bakerloo)



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