by Matt Juniper
Ben Affleck, Director. Just five years ago that felt like a bad joke, inducing eye rolls from film buffs and causal moviegoers alike. Yet here we are, three films in to his directing career and Affleck is no laughing matter, in fact he is fast establishing himself as a director you don’t want to miss. Argo, debuting at TIFF, marks the third straight film in which his skill set continues to evolve – experimenting and succeeding with techniques once thought possible only by directors by far his senior.
Argo tells the true story of the 1979 hostage crisis, in which 52 Americans were held for over 400 days after a group of militants seized control of the American Embassy in Iran. In particular, the film focuses on the “Canadian Caper” – a covert U.S. and Canadian effort to extract six Americans from Iran who had escaped the embassy and sought refuge at the house of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. C.I.A. agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) is tasked with the extraction and concocts an elaborate cover based around the production of a fake film (titled ‘Argo’). The cover story is elaborating woven to include everything from the creation of a fake production studio to the placement of advertisements in key Hollywood trade magazines.
In terms of subject matter, all accounts seem to indicate that Argo is grossly altered from reality. Keeping in mind that this is Hollywood after all and the film’s production team is quite transparent about the injection of additional drama in to the story. As a Canadian, I was a bit perturbed that much of this alternation comes at the expense of Canada and our diplomat’s role in the entire incident. The portrayal of Canada’s foreign affairs and intelligence teams as the passive, well-meaning guys at the mercy of our more powerful neighbors to the south is both inaccurate and over-simplified. Regardless, Canada plays a prominent role in the film, which was loudly applauded by the mostly Canadian TIFF audience at multiple points throughout the film.
Putting aside historical context and accuracy and examining the film independently, one can’t help but be impressed. Confronting a serious situation, Argo doesn’t limit itself to one particular mood, including everything from incredible laughs (most courtesy of Alan Arkin’s turn as head of the fake production company, Studio Six) to edge-of-your-seat suspense to a lesson to the proper pronunciation of Toronto (hint: we know you’re an out of towner if you pronounce the second ‘T’). The camera work is superb, particularly in some of the scenes of the streets of Iran, bringing life to the chaos of the revolutionary period.
Perhaps my only criticism of Argo is that while it succeeds in almost every department crucial to successful filmmaking (strong screenwriting, acting, directing, cinematography, etc.), it is not stellar in any one of these components. I struggle to see this film competing for any of the big prizes at the Academy Awards simply because of the fact that it is very well-rounded but does not demand attention for any one thing in particular. Still, it’s runner-up status in the TIFF People’s Choice Award indicates potential and serves notice that this film should not be ignored.
For more information on Argo, visit http://argothemovie.warnerbros.com.