There has been a good deal of hype surrounding the release of Argo into commercial UK cinema. Based upon a true account of a CIA hostage rescue known as ‘The Canadian Caper’ (the role of the Canadians is significantly played down in the film) from Tehran during a hostage crisis in 1979, the Ben Affleck directed Argo has been tipped by many for a prominent place at the Academy Awards next year. It doesn’t quite live up to the top star billing which it was given but it is very good none the less.
I’m sure we’ve all seen countless spy films which we’ve enjoyed immensely but have had to suspend our senses of disbelief in order to do so. Argo offers you the opportunity to witness a real spy mission, something which contributes significantly to the film’s disadvantages as well as its advantages.
Advantages first though. The premise of the film is strong and the storming of US embassies becomes even more charged with tension given the modern climate. This is what happens in Tehran where disquiet among the locals over the American government’s refusal to release Iran’s recently deposed Shah to the justice of the Iranian people boils over into conflict. The embassy is taken over and everyone inside is taken hostage apart from six people who manage to escape and hide in the Canadian embassy. The CIA enlist the help of Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to rescue the six Americans from Iran before they are discovered, captured and possibly killed.
In order to do this, they set up aliases for each of the six hostages, pretending that they are members of a film crew scouting out a location for a new science fiction movie, Argo. A third of the film is spent in making providing the backstory to this down to the CIA actually fund the making of the fake film. This all works quite well and the reality feel is compounded by the way in which the film is shot, often on grainy, hand-held cameras giving the impression that you are actually watching news footage from the late 1970s. This style of shooting lends the film a claustrophobic feel which expertly ramps up the tension in the film’s key dramatic passages.
However, the fact that this spy story is so believable also lets it down in the climatic sequences where the tension is slightly artificially constructed. Much of the final half hour relies on narrow passages of time in which someone or something needs to get to a certain place to allow something else to happen. Although the tension is created well, you can’t help wishing it was achieved in a less contrived fashion. Without, these injections of suspense, however, there wouldn’t be much of a climatic passage as [SPOILER ALERT] they manage to escape without too much trouble. Maybe they don’t make realistic spy films for a reason: they’d actually be quite dull.
Having said this, however, Argo is extremely enjoyable from start to finish, largely thanks to the supreme strength of the supporting cast. Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin are all extremely watchable with the latter two providing some brilliant comic moments . Likewise the six hostages are all extremely good at looking tight-lipped and worried while Ben Affleck calmly guides them out of the country.
In fact, the film overall is calmly guided by Affleck in his capacity as director, and the production team of George Clooney and Grant Heslov (who worked together on Good Night and Good Luck), providing the platform for what becomes a stylish and highly enjoyable film.