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The Great Escape – ★★★★★

Argo is Ben Affleck’s third directorial effort after the under-appreciated Gone Baby Gone and the Boston crime drama The Town. Both those films had their problems but it was clear to all that Affleck really had a knack for this directing game and should be placed on a nice fat retainer by Warner Brothers to reward his solid “American” movies.

The plot for Argo is downright daft and every reviewer under the sun has mentioned how we’d be ripping it apart for plausibility if it weren’t based on true events from 1979. They are all correct.

The American embassy in Tehran is over-run by rebels but six staff members manage to escape and are taken in by the Canadian ambassador. Ben Affleck’s CIA man Tony Mendez heads up a team supervised by Bryan Cranston’s Jack O’Donnell who are tasked with getting them out of Iran and back onto American soil. He devises a plan to create a fake Hollywood production of a new science fiction film called “Argo” (think Flash Gordon meets Star Wars) which is scouting for locations in the Middle East. He brings in studio big shots John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to add a little bit of industry credibility to proceedings.

The script is a tight and tense affair as we spend most of our time switching between Tehran, the CIA headquarters at Langley and the Hollywood movie lot. People talk quickly on the phone throughout most of the film, which gives a feeling of things zipping along quite nicely. There are countless close-calls that, if you buy into the tense world that Affleck has built and leave any scepticism at the door, make for one hell of a cinema experience.

While Affleck’s performance is functional and relatively subdued (the fact that he plumped for himself to play a Latino man says a lot about star power and Hollywood’s casting systems), the stars of the show are undoubtedly the supporting players he surrounds himself with. While the CIA and Tehran gangs all do well, the real shining lights are in Hollywood and you can only hope that Arkin and Goodman won’t cancel each other’s Oscar chances out as both deserve credit for bringing Tinsel Town caricatures to life with hilarious effect.

| o | – Cheers Mr. Roseanne!

One of Argo’s strengths lies in the attention to detail in creating a period piece. The film is very obviously set in the late seventies and while that allows the cast to ham it up with huge collars, flares and bobbley hair cuts, the seamless integration of archived news-reel footage and flawless art direction also go a long way to selling things and setting the scene. The film stock (Affleck used Rodrigo Prieto as D.P. and shot predominantly on a combination of  8mm, 16mm and 35mm film with minimal use of digital cameras) has a wonderfully noisy and washed-out grain and really deserves to be seen projected properly on the big screen. Watching the film calls to mind so many reference points ranging from Syndey Pollack’s 1975 thriller Three Days of the Condor right up to 2010’s sprawling mini-series Carlos.

It should be noted that Argo combines many of my favourite things – Affleck, the Hollywood system, the 1970s, Canada, beards and John Goodman. But even with all this in it’s favour it would have been easy to have put together a clichéd, tepid story trying to combine the bravery and fluke of the operation. Instead Affleck decided to acknowledge the absurdity of the story and go all out with a crowd-pleasing roller-coaster of a film that never slows down.

The days of Ben Affleck being a tabloid punchline (J’Lo? Gigli?) are now long gone and he is well on the way to forging a path for himself as one of the most consistent American film-makers.

While we’re still to see Les Miserables, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, I’d still be putting my Best Picture Oscar chips firmly on Affleck and Argo.

USA  /  Directed By: Ben Affleck  /  Written By: Chris Terrio  /  Starring:  Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler  /  120min  /   Thriller, Drama   /  Release: 7 November 2012 (UK/Ireland)