Argo, Affleck and a hard-hitting Hollywood tale

ben affleck

I saw Argo the other night and thought it was great. Really tense throughout, with a few lighter moments to keep from getting too heavy. I said as much to friends and got told rather firmly that the film was historically inaccurate and missed the point.

When I queried this I was told it didn’t fully explore the political situation behind the stand-off between Iran and the US. Whilst this may be true, I’m not sure that matters too much. I’ll explain why. But first, the plot.

The Hollywood option
Set in revolutionary Iran in 1979, the story focuses on six American diplomats forced to flee their embassy and take refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s house. CIA ex-filtration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to orchestrate their escape, by posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo.

If this were just a film, most people would probably avoid it with a story this ludicrous, but it’s true. This was a proper CIA-sanctioned mission – that’s what makes it so compelling. To return to the comments my friends made about the film’s inaccuracies, Hollywood is known for butchering history – often in a spectacular way. Or twisting it to suit its own means.

Let’s face it, films based on true stories are often going to upset somebody. Maybe they’re inaccurate, maybe they’ve left out key facts. Sometimes the facts don’t make a great film or there are too many characters for the story to be focused enough.

First and foremost, film-makers are trying to make something that’s going to appeal to as many people as possible. The more controversial the material, the more it’s going to be a challenge. Anyway, lesson over, let’s look at the film.

Affleck the A-list….Director
Never thought you’d hear that one right? This is his third film as Director, following the critically-acclaimed Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Both tense, dramatic and well-told stories in a realistic setting.

Also both were set in Boston. So many – including myself – were interested to see if he could deliver the same type of suspenseful film not just in another location, but way outside the US. In a way, the stabilisers are off and he’s wobbling down the street on his own. With a good measure of success.

As well as displaying a deft touch as Director – balancing drama with comedy moments – his acting is also solid and unfussy. Casting himself as lead character Tony Mendez, he comes across as a relatively inscrutable, stoic protagonist – yet has the self-awareness to be the calm centre of the storm, allowing other characters to spin around him.

A cosmic conflagration
He also gets some great performances out of the supporting cast which included: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy and Bryan Cranston. argo poster - by conception studiosArkin and Goodman were on top form, poking fun at the inner workings of the Hollywood machine with some great lines. Goodman to Affleck, ‘You want to come to Hollywood and act all fake like a big shot? You’ll fit right in.’

It’s never going to be an easy task to tell a tale this complex, however I think Affleck pulls it off. This is a tense, concise, well-told story, cleverly cut with a satirical nod towards Hollywood, but kept grounded by a level-headed Director who’s going from strength to strength. It may not please everyone from a historical point of view, but it’s a darn good film nonetheless.

Secret State – proper thriller or nothing new?

Talk about a mixed reaction to the first episode of Channel 4’s four-part political conspiracy thriller Secret State. Some critics think it’s pretty good, others have torn it apart.

Me? I sit somewhere in the middle, probably more on the positive side. Despite the plot being a little predictable at times, it’s well shot and Gabriel Byrne (Deputy Prime Minister) is a compelling lead, with a solid supporting cast including: Charles Dance (Chief Whip with dark motives?), Gina McKee (suspiciously well informed reporter), Douglas Hodge (alcoholic ex-MI5 chief turned private investigator).

Setting the scene
Based on the book A Very British Coup, the story begins in the aftermath of an explosion at a US petrochemical site in Teeside, which results in the death of 19 people. After securing compensation for the families whose loved ones died in the explosion, the Prime Minister’s plane suspiciously crashes on a flight back from the US and he dies.

Dawkins (Byrne) reluctantly assumes leadership and promises justice for the victims’ families. As he pressures the petrochemical company to make good on their compensation promise, he begins to make discoveries of a conspiratorial nature that lie at the heart of Government.

channel 4 thrillerSuspicion abound!
Within the first 20 minutes or so, it becomes abundantly clear that nearly every major character has hidden/murky motives. We’d expect nothing less from a conspiracy thriller right?

It does feel that plot points are contrived at times. Characters like McKee’s reporter pop up at key moments with teasing information to divulge.

Everyone appears to be watching everyone – GCHQ are listening intently to the PM, the order coming from someone ‘very senior’. My money is on Chief Whip (Dance) who’s clearly up to something – he always is. His gravestone should read, ‘Born to scheme’. Ahem, let’s move on.

I understand why people expect thrillers to deliver on every level these days, they’re up against wise, old dogs – State of Play, Edge of Darkness – and keen, new youngsters – Homeland.

A proper PM
Ladies love a bit of Byrne right? He’s great casting. Calm, decisive, authoritative, charismatic, knowledgeable – everything you’d expect from a leader. You get the sense he’s on the back-foot initially, but his Irish fire will kick in and he’ll tear into those that oppose him. At least, that’s my hope.

Numerous references get made to his military background. It would be great to see him bring righteousness to the political arena. A biblical PM, delivering great vengeance and furious anger against his conspirators, Pulp Fiction style. Too much?

The long game
In terms of the London setting and production values, it’s visually impressive. Great shots of Whitehall and the corridors of power. The score is suitably tense, although perhaps stolen from the Bourne films?

I imagine many characters will reveal their true motives as things progress. Despite some shortfalls in terms of giving the audience too many ‘standard conspiracy’ elements, it’s worth sticking with this show. It’s only a four-parter, so probably best judging at the end.

I’ve seen two episodes and it’s shaping up well. Not an instant classic, but worth your time. If nothing else than to imagine what it’d be like if Byrne was PM. Now that would be thrilling.