(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 20 October 2012)
Cast: Ben Affleck, Scoot McNairy, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan
Director: Ben Affleck
Rating: 4.5 stars
When Argo opens, we’re pulled into the tumultuous history of twentieth century Iran, haunted by horrific representations in delicate sketches, whose story is narrated by an invisible woman, her English touched with the slightest of Iranian accents. We learn of Mohammad Mossadegh, the Western plot to overthrow him, the installation of the Shah, and the ramifications of that – ramifications that continue to plague Iran and the Western world today.
Ben Affleck’s directorial ventures have shown us that a thriller can be portrayed with restraint, and there’s no better example of this particular skill than Argo. Rather than bombard us with information, deaden us with machismo and bore us with tough-guy lines, the film crafts a story around a true incident, layering it with just enough drama to keep us hooked.
Loosely based on an account by former CIA operative Tony Mendez, the film recounts what came to be known as the Canadian Caper. Alternating real footage with filmed scenes, Argo makes us revisit the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, when students stormed the American Embassy, and the Revolutionary Guard closed off the exit and entry points to the country. A Middle Eastern country was holding America to random – return the cancer-ridden Shah Reza Pahlavi, or else.
Enter Ben Affleck, and a plan deliciously described as “The best bad idea we have.” Affleck plays exfiltration specialist Mendez, who refers to himself as “Exfil”. Which brings me to one of the things I like most about the film – there are no rambling explanations, no contrived occasion to fill us in on what this is all about. The makers leave us to Google the gaps we need filled in, and the film is a cleaner one for it.
The film is populated by characters who are settled in their roles, down to grumbling, “My guy kinda sucks”, when they’re asked to assume false identities. The screenplay is enriched by lines that make us think, and then laugh, such as, “John Wayne’s in the ground six months, and this is what’s left of America.” Affleck does indulge himself, cornering a couple of similes, but we can forgive him that, for all the other things he pitches so perfectly.
When you try to tell a true story that is devised on an impossible premise, and keep an audience engaged even when we’re more or less certain of how it will end, you need a special something. Affleck has enough directorial skill to plant a doubt in our complacent minds, and keep us anxious till the end. The film benefits from the presence of the likes of John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Victor Garber, all excellent actors who are capable of playing the smallest of roles convincingly.
The Verdict: Argo is that rare thriller that rejects gore and violence for understated drama. Book your tickets.