Having recently enjoyed the fantasy spy world of “Skyfall,” here follows a far more down-to-earth portrayal of espionage in “Argo” (directed by and starring Ben Affleck).
This time, however, instead of tuxedos and Aston Martins, we have cigarette-filled ashtrays, beige-colored clunky phones and insane sideburns. It’s far closer to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” than “Mission: Impossible.”
“Argo” is the story of how, in 1979, the American government responded to the hostage crisis in Iran – a result of the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini.
When its embassy was overrun by civilians angered by their unwillingness to return the Shah to Iran, some of the embassy staff hid in the Canadian ambassador’s house.
It’s Ben Affleck’s CIA agent, Tony Mendez, who comes up with a rescue plan that is so bonkers it’s brilliant. And it all really happened.
Mendez is a modern-day Moses, sent into a hostile land to bring his people out – his boss even calls his assignment a “Moses Mission.”
His tenacity and ingenuity is guided by no other ideal than the principle that this is his job (a calling, since he’s done it before), and that the people involved deserve every chance to have their lives spared.
In a confident display of understated acting, Affleck brings a quiet strength to his determined agent. There is no gun-waving or show-off martial arts. He is more George Smiley than Jason Bourne.
Iran has rarely left the news since 1979, with America demonizing it at every opportunity.
I was half expecting a demolition job, but instead Affleck opens the film with a brief history of Iran, which highlights the often overlooked fact that the country had free and fair elections back in 1951.
It even elected Mohammad Mosaddegh, a secular democrat.
But because he started nationalizing the oil companies, the United Kingdom asked the United States to intervene.
The CIA organized a coup, which installed Mohammed Reza Pahlevi as the Shah of Iran.
For the next 26 years, he lived in opulence, all the while subverting the country’s poorer classes. It was only a matter of time before the population rose up.
In a way, Iran was the first “Arab Spring” – although in this case it’s important to remember that they’re actually Persian. They speak Farsi, not Arabic.
Affleck’s attempt at providing a semi-sympathetic context for the righteous revolutionary rage is commendable if ultimately a little undermined by his simplistic portrayal of the actual Iranians involved in the story.
They’re either shouting fanatics or loyal supporters of the West. America may be responsible for this mess in the first place but it’s also America who helps save the day in Affleck’s film.
If I were a teacher grading his movie, I’d have to say, “B+ for making a genuinely entertaining film. As for the politics, it’s a C- but you’re going in the right direction.”
I had a personal interest in “Argo” because it covers the events that affected me as a child.
I was born in Tehran in 1977. My father, a South African diplomat, was stationed in Iran on his first posting overseas.
My family albums are full of photos of me crawling and toddling around the parks, bazaars and squares of the city.
In 1979 as the unrest grew, and more and more foreigners were assaulted, my mother returned with me to South Africa.
My father remained behind to tie up loose ends at our embassy and residences, making sure that as many South Africans as possible could get out.
About four months after my mother had left, my father was finally able to catch a plane home to Johannesburg.
As director, Affleck does a superb job evoking that period in history. He balances the seriousness of the hostage drama with the comedy moments of organizing his escape plan.
It’s a deft juggling act, but one he manages to perform successfully. His attention to detail is probably on a par with David Fincher’s “Zodiac” – another film to reconstruct the ’70s perfectly.
But why has no one told Affleck to grow a beard sooner? That man looks good in a beard. And in the director’s chair.
There is a theory among movie critics that the best thing ever to happen to Affleck was “Gigli” – the cringe-inducing collaboration with then-girlfriend J-Lo. It was appalling.
Affleck’s reputation as an actor was shot. His once-promising career was in freefall.
All he could do was stand on the sidelines and watch as friend and screen-writing partner Matt Damon became a formidable leading man.
The whole mess did encourage him to try his hand at directing. And what do you know? The man is a natural. Both “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” balanced suspense with pathos.
“Argo” continues that promising trajectory. Entertaining and certainly very tense, it’s a film that anyone can enjoy.
Affleck’s principled agent is an old-fashioned hero. Don’t leave the cinema too quickly or you’ll miss the original photos of everyone involved. It’s hard to believe it all really happened.
Alex Baker is the creative coordinator for the Baptist Union of Great Britain and a former sub-editor on The Baptist Times, where this review first appeared. He’s also a cartoonist.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violent images.
Director: Ben Affleck
Writers: Chris Terrio (screenplay), Joshuah Bearman (article)
Cast: Ben Affleck: Tony Mendez; Bryan Cranston: Jack O’Donnell; Alan Arkin: Lester Siegel; John Goodman: John Chambers; Victor Garber: Ken Taylor; Tate Donovan: Bob Anders; and Clea DuVall: Cora Lijek.
The movie’s website is here.