In previous reviews I’ve talked about how true stories are sometimes more intriguing and exciting than those dreamt up by a writer supping malibu by his pool in Malibu. The Imposter, for instance, was a riveting film that was made all the more enjoyable because you knew it was true. Although Argo is very much dramatised, with genuine actors unlike The Imposter, it still sits in the same vein. And it also comes with Ben Affleck both in front of and behind the camera – a guy who’s seeming like he can do no wrong any more. Add to that it’s a spy story, at a time when James Bond is dominating the box office, and you’ve got to wonder if Affleck can romance the crowds against the bang and bravado of Skyfall… So… can he?
Firstly, if you’ve read my review of James Bond’s latest, Skyfall, you’ll be aware that I thought it was OK, but overall was very underwhelming. Especially against the backdrop of all the hype and fanfare it’s receiving. Argo is a different customer entirely. It doesn’t feature a slick British agent cavorting around the world, nor does it feature a “super-villain” in the same pantomime way as Bond. What it does offer is perhaps the best spy-related film of the year.
Argo, which is based on a true story, follows the attempts to rescue a set of US embassy workers that are trapped inside of a revolutionary Iran, where the Great Satan (aka USA) is vilified and hated by all. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) of the CIA concocts a way to evacuate them: by getting them to pose as a Canadian film crew that are doing reconnaissance for a sci-fi film known as Argo. Whilst in the US, Mendez puts together a team of Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman) to set all the wheels in motion for this film that will never be made. Whilst liberties have been taken (such as Lester Siegel being fictitious), the plot follows the actual events of the 1979-1981 crisis.
I’m tempted now to throw down a list of all the brilliant actors in this film, such as Bryan Cranston and Zeljko Ivanek, but I’ll have to resist. Needless to say you’ll be seeing faces you will and won’t recognise. Some with a keener eye for cinema may spot actors from this year’s Killing Them Softly (Scoot McNairy) and 1998’s The Faculty (Clea DuVall), all donning very late 1970’s attire and hair. There are no weak links in this acting chain.
If you don’t know where I’m going with this, then let me explain: the characters and acting are fantastic. Ben Affleck yet again shows us that he’s a truly talented guy, both in front and behind the camera. It seemed for a while that his old buddy Matt Damon may have truly ridden away into the sunset in terms of great roles and great performances, but boy… Affleck is good. Really good. Kudos also has to go to the screenplay writers here too. The movie has tension in spades, but also has some guffaw-inducing humour – normally coming from either John Goodman or Alan Arkin. Both are on top form and their comic “old school Hollywood” personalities really shine through on that script. Also providing a not-safe-for-children’s-eyes catchphrase that you’ll no doubt utter as you leave the screening.
Although I can’t talk much about the plot, as it’d spoil everything, I can say that I found the film riveting. I didn’t ever find myself bored or distracted. I was fully absorbed for the full 120 minute runtime. Also, with the events occurring a few years before me even being born, I can’t quite comment on the accuracy of events. I could go and read all the documents that were declassified by Bill Clinton back in the 1990’s, but I think I’d prefer to have “this” version of events as my canon. I’m sure that the film has been bent and adapted to make it more appealing to cinema-goers, but I’d genuinely believe this is “based on a true story”… and not in the same way that Paranormal Activity is “based on a true story”. That and it’s actually really good.
Skyfall may be what all the press and your friends are talking about right now. They may all be heaping praise on the film too. But Bond’s been beaten hands down by Ben Affleck‘s Argo. There’s no hamfisted plot twists, no weak characterisation and no product placement. What Argo delivers is a captivating true story with some of the best performances we’ve seen in this end of 2012. It also features far funnier lines than anything in Bond’s recent repertoire too.
If this is spy season at the cinema (after the summer’s superhero season, and mid-October’s animated-horror season), then there can only be one film you’ll need to see, and it’s not the one featuring a guy who likes his Martini “shaken, not stirred”. Once again, the truth is way more exciting than fiction.