17 October 2012

LFF 2012 Part II: Argo

There weren't many appealing options in the "big gala" section of the London Film Festival this year. For the past few years I've been excited to see George Clooney, Andrew Garfield and, especially, Clive Owen, but this year, I had to make do with Ben Affleck. Back in the 1990s, I was definitely on Team Ben, but more recently I've shifted over to Team Matt, especially after he smiled at me that one time.

Clare Stewart, Ben Affleck, John Goodman & Bryan Cranston at the Argo premiere

Anyway, the gala in question was the UK premiere of Argo, directed by and starring Affleck, and with Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Bryan Cranston, to name just a few, filling out the impressive cast list. The film, which tells a recently declassified true story about a madcap, last-ditch attempt by a CIA agent to rescue six US diplomats from the Canadian embassy in Iran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Sounds pretty heavy-going and the film has its serious moments, but the plan in question involved the agent, Tony Mendez (Affleck) pretending to be the producer of a Canadian science fantasy film scouting for locations in Tehran. He would then sneak out the diplomats as members of his crew. "Is that the best bad idea you've got?" his boss, Jack O'Donnell (Cranston) asks. Unfortunately, it is.

To be a convincing fake movie, however, you need a script, someone who knows Hollywood--producer Lester Siegel, played by an excellent Alan Arkin--and, given that this a science fantasy movie, a prosthetics expert, who comes in the form of the Oscar winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman). It turns out making a fake movie is harder than any of them thought, but as Siegel puts it, "if I'm making a fake movie, I want to make a hit." Cue a series of jokes at the expense of Hollywood.

And that's why Argo works. Because although at times you wonder if you should be laughing at Siegel's sharp one-liners and Chambers's quips and the banter between the two--the chemistry between Arkin and Goodman is superb--given that these scenes are interspersed with tense moments back at the Canadian embassy, where the hostages (played by actors as varied as Clea DuVall and Jimmy Cooper from The O.C.) are terrified that they will never get out alive and that Mendez's crazy plan is the fastest way to get them all killed. Especially as not everyone in the agency seems fully supportive of the idea, and especially when the ruling government in Iran are recruiting children to slowly piece back together the shredded documents from the captured US embassy, revealing the identities of the six diplomats who went "missing."

Argo is part historical thriller, part tongue-in-cheek take on the ridiculousness of Hollywood, but not very much of a political drama. At the beginning of the film, a narrator tells us the background to the hostage situation, which is lucky because I suspect most people in the audience (including me) knew very little about it, but the politics really just provides the means for the plot. It comes down with an American slant, of course, but it doesn't seem to be making any deeper or more meaningful points. It's just an amazing story. ***SPOILER ALERT Although I thought it was highly unlikely if this film would have been made at this time if Mendez's plot hadn't been a success, I was still on the edge of my seat for most of the final act. There was applause at the screening tonight not just for Affleck and the rest of the cast at the end, but when it becomes clear that the hostages are going to be OK.***

L: red carpet; C: Bryan Cranston with the paparazzi; R: Clare Stewart & Ben Affleck

Tonight, Ben Affleck showed up to the premiere, along with John Goodman and Bryan Cranston. Goodman claimed he signed up to the project because he wanted to meet Matt Damon--Affleck then said that he would, which I sort of hoped meant Damon might make a cameo appearance tonight, but sadly not. There wasn't a proper Q&A; Affleck just talked about how amazing it was to be on stage presenting his film to the London Film Festival, and how it's easier to make a recent historical film than one set 200 years ago because you can still go and talk to the people who lived through it. Well, yes. Anyway, I really liked Argo, and I kind of wish that the fake Argo ended up getting made--as a trashy B movie, of course--especially if they use Arkin's character's tagline, "Argo f*ck off."

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