Monday, 11 March 2013

Film Review | Argo (2012)

A couple of weeks before Argo won Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards, director Ben Affleck stood up in front of an equally prestigious audience of peers to accept the Best Film award at the BAFTAs. Towards the end of his speech, Affleck told the audience: "This is a second act for me, and you have given me that. This industry has given me that" - a clear and honest reference to the director's former critically chequered career in front of the camera. In humbly acknowledging not only his youthful errors but also the objectivity and respect his recent directorial work has been received with by the industry, critics and audiences, Affleck clearly showed how he has developed into a balanced and mature member of the film industry; it is a balance and maturity which is openly reflected throughout the vast majority of Argo's running time.

This is a grown-up film that deals with sensitive issues by and large in a skilled and meticulous fashion. Affleck's casting of himself in the lead role as CIA operative Tony Mendez works well providing a solid presence around which the threads and characters of the story can gravitate. Affleck's largely understated performance also allows the fine performances of his supporting cast to come to the fore. Veterans Alan Arkin and John Goodman put not a foot wrong between them, crafting superb characters from a relatively small amount of screen time. The half dozen ensemble of largely unknown actors playing American diplomats trapped in early 1980s Ayatollah-led Iran also do incredibly well as a collective. It's Bryan Cranston, however, who gives the performance of the film as Mendez's senior Jack O'Donnell. Cranston's performance grows more and more compelling as the film progresses. Having never seen Breaking Bad, Cranston's signature TV drama, I can't compare his performance here to what he's like in that, but let's just say I'm pretty much sold on buying the first season solely on the strength of the actor's Argo turn.

The excellent cast are important in the film's success, but are just one part of what is Affleck's film through and through. The director's skill at capturing the ultra-hostile environment of Iran in the late '70s and early '80s is startling, bringing home the atrocities in a punishingly matter-of-fact fashion. It's almost a shame that Affleck feels the need to draw direct comparison between historical photographs and shots from his film during the closing credits, as if he is desperate to ensure you know that what he's shown you is based in fact. It's okay, Ben, we believe you. The film strikes the perfect balance between drama and realism during the first two acts, although things perhaps slow down a little too much during the middle section. Affleck more than makes up for any slackening of pace by ramping up the tension during the final act, surely one of the most nail-biting and squirm-inducing forty minutes of film you'll watch this year. It may for some be too much of a departure from the realism of earlier in the film, but there's no denying the gripping, heart-pounding nature of the finale Affleck creates.

There are a few minor missteps that hold Argo back from genuine greatness. Goodman and Arkin - two of the film's strongest attributes - are largely sidelined after the film's first act, leaving me wanting more of both and feeling as though the skills of these Hollywood patriarchs hadn't been utilised to their fullest. It would also have been interesting to see a little more of the background to some of the characters featured, particularly Mendez, whose family serves as a plot device rather than supporting characters. These are largely forgivable qualms though due to the consistent quality, maturity and craftsmanship resplendent throughout Argo. This is a genuinely excellent film; whether or not it's a film deserving of the praise and accolades recently lavished upon it is a question that will be answered by time more than anything, and is also a question I am not currently in a position to answer having yet to watch the film's main competition during awards season. But there's no denying the spectacular career transformation Ben Affleck has made, nor the defining moment Argo deserves recognition as in the director's life and work.


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