Affleck and the Argo-nauts

9 Nov

There’s a great song from the film Team America in which, contemplating Michael Bay’s execrable movie Pearl Harbor the singer declares, “I need you like Ben Affleck needs acting school /He was terrible in that film. / I need you like Cuba Gooding Jr needed a bigger part / He’s way better than Ben Affleck…” 

“Oh, by the way, Ben. If, erroneously, I’m told you’ve died in combat, I will shag your best friend, Josh Hartnett, within minutes of finding out.” Seriously. That is the actual fucking plot of this movie.

Until very recently, I was inclined to agree. I’d seen Pearl Harbor, a film so bad it had me this close to cheering the Japanese, and a number of other Affleck movies that weren’t Good Will Hunting, and I was left distinctly unimpressed. He was just so bland; neither as charming as Clooney, nor as sexy as Pitt, and he hadn’t taken the kind of risks his old chum Matt Damon had, preferring to stick to mainstream snoozathons like The Sum of all Fears and Armageddon.

When I saw his brother Casey’s performance in Andrew Dominik’s brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James, I decided he was the Affleck brother with all the acting chops, and how dare his more-matinee-idol-ish brother Ben steal all the limelight?

“He also stole my ice cream and my Boba Fett in 1981.”

That all kind of changed when I saw the 2006 film Hollywoodland, in which Affleck plays the troubled – and ultimately doomed – George Reeves, star of the original Adventures of Superman TV show. It’s not a perfect movie, but Affleck’s subtle, nuanced performance holds it up and keeps you watching. Maybe I’d underestimated him. Then, in 2010, I saw The Town, his second film as director. Though borrowing heavily, in terms of style, from Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat, it was a strong film, and very confidently directed, considering his relative inexperience as a director and the size and scale of its set pieces.

Now we have Argo, Affleck’s third film as director, and the second in which he appears both sides of the camera. Stylistically, he’s going back much further than the mid-90s on this one, opening his movie with the late 1970s Time Warner Logo some of us oldies may remember…

This one!

The year is 1979. Following the Iranian Revolution, the US has provided asylum to the deposed Shah, and the Ayatollah Khomeini ain’t happy. A crowd of protesters has the US Embassy in Tehran surrounded. Inside, embassy staff work hard at shredding paper files and destroying hilariously enormous computers, while a group of Iranians wait, desperate to have their US visas stamped so they can flee the country. In a nerve-shredding sequence, the protesters break through the gates and storm the compound, capturing 52 US hostages, and thus beginning the 444 day Iran Hostage Crisis.

However… Unbeknownst to the Revolutionary Guard, but beknownst to us, six consulate staff are able to make a getaway. Having run around the streets of Tehran trying not to look too much like tourists (in reality they were on the run for several days) they are taken in by Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and his wife, who hide them at their private residence.

“I hope you fellas like ‘Kids In The Hall’. It’s our favourite show, ay.” “But… that won’t even be on TV for, like, another eight years.” “Shut up! This is OUR house!”

Thus begins the “Canadian Caper“, a story whose full details were only declassified by the CIA in the 1990s, and which must rank as one of the strangest missions ever attempted by a government agency.

Providing ‘Spies Like Us’ wasn’t based on a file yet to be declassified…

Put simply, the plan was this: CIA operative Tony Mendez, posing as a Canadian film producer and with assistance from Hollywood professionals (including Planet Of The Apes make-up designer John Chambers and comic book artist Jack Kirby) would develop a fake film project, a Star Wars rip-off called Argo. He would then travel to Iran and, still posing as a producer, scout for locations for said film, along with six “members of his Canadian film crew” (in other words, the six US consulate staff currently hiding in the Canadian Ambassador’s house and forced to listen to way too much Moxy Früvous). Having briefed the six on their fake Canadian IDs (and presumably taught them how to say “aboot” instead of “about”), Mendez & Co. would then head straight to the airport, and get on the first plane out of Bearded Fundamentalist Central.

Not quite what I had in mind…

So, I know what you’re thinking. You want to know if the plan worked, right? Well, that’s one of Argo‘s strengths. Until now, the so-called “Canadian Caper” has been something of an obscure footnote to the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Most audiences won’t know the outcome, and I’m not about to go spoiling it here. Though I’d read about it before – in this Cracked article – I couldn’t remember how it all turned out. Did it go tits up? Were they all dragged back to Azadi Square and hanged? Did some go cycling into freedom, like James Coburn’s terrible Australian accent in The Great Escape, while others, in the manner of Donald Pleasance and James Garner, were gunned down in cold blood? I just didn’t know.

As a result, by the last act I’d run out of fingernails to chew on. Affleck skillfully ramps up the tension pretty much from the opening scene, and he doesn’t let go. Even when the film is winking satirically at Hollywood, it never lets you forget that actual lives are at stake.

The acting is uniformly great across the whole cast, but there are some standout performances from Alan Arkin as a grizzled Hollywood veteran, and rising star Scoot McNairy, who was excellent as a seedy stick-up artist in the recent Killing Them Softly.

I’ve heard some – for instance, Pouya Alimagham in this piece from the Huffington Post – complain about the film’s depiction of Iran and Iranians, but I’m not sure how much more this film could have done to depict Iran in a balanced light without it being clunky. How many more close-ups of crying “normal” Iranians could we have taken before having to yell, “Okay… Ben… we get the fucking point.”

Though, granted, that woman in the grey hijab does appear to be smirking.

If Affleck had made an epic movie about Iran’s long, rich history, but focused only on the bad bits, Alimagham may have a point. As it is, pretending Iran’s hard-line theocratic government hasn’t behaved like one giant, bearded bastard for the last 33 years helps no-one, least of all those living under the regime. Plus, if you don’t want people to be presented “through the lens of terrorism and hostage-taking, public executions, (and) bearded men shouting so hysterically that spit flies out of their mouths”, you should probably take them to task for their terrorism, hostage-taking, public executions, beard growing and shouting so hysterically that spit flies our of their mouths, not have a pop at Ben Affleck for making a movie.

That’s like having a go at these guys because you hated ‘Gigli‘.

Sadly, the censorious streak runs thick and wild these days, with far too many pundits deliberately missing the point of what certain kinds of film are and what they set out to do.

“What’s that, Mr Affleck? You’ve made a thriller, you say? About the Iranian Hostage Crisis? Well, I hope you’ve included a 45 minute prologue detailing Persia’s rich, cultural heritage, from the Sufi mysticism of poets like Rumi and Attar through to the recent, Oscar-winning film A Separation. What do you mean, you’ve focused only on the story you wanted to tell? This is an OUTRAGE.”

Anyway… All that aside, and with the chip duly removed from my shoulder, Argo is a cracking film, capturing perfectly the look and the feel of the late-1970s/early-80s without resorting to too much clunky exposition or a jukebox soundtrack. On the strength of his first three films, I’m fascinated to know what Affleck will do next.

I’m guessing it won’t be a sequel to ‘Daddy Day Camp‘.

 

Author

David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

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2 Responses to “Affleck and the Argo-nauts”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. My Top 5 Boys’* Films of 2012 « A Forest of Beasts - December 17, 2012

    […] I’ve already written at some length about Argo elsewhere, and wouldn’t want to repeat myself, but this was another surprise stand-out of the year. […]

  2. Life of Pi: “Zebras and tigers and boats, oh my!” « A Forest of Beasts - January 16, 2013

    […] This year, I’ve been a little tardy. I missed Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Silver Linings Playbook, all of which look amazing, and have yet to watch Django Unchained, Lincoln, Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, until 2 days ago the only movie nominated for Best Film that I’d seen was Argo, which I loved. […]

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