With Argo, his third film as director, Ben Affleck solidifies his reputation as a powerhouse behind the camera.
Leaving behind the Boston setting of his first two films, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck tries his hand at a period piece, chronicling the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. The real beauty of the film is its subtlety and ability to create a truly taught thriller with elements of comedy and family drama. And he does all of it with very little action and no explosions. It’s a true callback to the thrillers of the classic Hollywood age.
Based on the true story—with some creative liberties—the story follows the rescuing of six American diplomats in Iran after the country erupted into a revolution and stormed the U.S. Embassy. While many of the Americans there were taken hostage, six managed to escape and found asylum in the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor’s (Victor Garber) home. For over two months the Americans are in a self-imposed exile while their country tries to figure out a plan to end the crisis, as well as free them.
Back home, the CIA and Canadian government are slowly struggling to figure out that plan. The six of them escaped, unnoticed by the Iranians and the world, but the clock is quickly ticking until their absence amongst the rest of the hostages is noticed. After much debate, the plan they finally arrive at, thanks to CIA special operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), is to pretend they are making a science-fiction film in Iran’s desolate terrain and sneak the six back as the film crew. Even by Mendez’s standards, who has rescued people before, it’s a risky move but the best plan they have. But in order for it to work, they need to convince Iran, and the world, that the film is real.
So, Mendez flies to L.A. where he meets with makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who has done contract work before and helps Mendez make a film. Goodman is fantastic as the deadpan Chambers and plays off the mostly serious, and Hollywood-naive, Affleck perfectly. While not a scene stealer, he imbues the character with an optimistic and jovial persona that undercuts the real seriousness of the situation. When Chambers is able to get big time producer, and even more deadpan, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) on board, the film really takes off.
What’s so great about the film is that despite the audience knowing how it will end, Affleck plays it straight and still manages to wrack up the tension throughout the film’s two hours. But it’s his touches of comedy through Goodman and Arkin, and dab of family drama in the form of Mendez being separated from his wife and son, that really drives the film home. And while the film revolves around upheaval in Iran, there is very little action to speak of, which only pushes the suspense even more. The claustrophobia the six Americans endure feeds into the slowly closing window Mendez and his cohorts are up against.
The acting is fantastic throughout from Affleck’s stoic yet serious Mendez, the comedic duo of Goodman and Arkin, Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s superior Jack O’Donnell and the six Americans. What’s so great about the acting is it’s at once uniformly solid but no one ever oversteps their boundaries and gets distracted from the task at hand. They, along with Affleck the director, keep the action constantly moving forward as the suspense rises to almost unbearable levels by the end. Really, though, it’s to Affleck’s testament as a director that he can pull it all off with a story who’s outcome is already known. Therefore it becomes not a film about what happens but how it happens and that’s where he succeeds in spades.
It may not be the type of film with cerebral and psychological undertones or a film that has flourishes of visual beauty, like those of Wes Anderson or similar arthouse auteurs but what Affleck does is create a big Hollywood studio film and crafts it beautifully. In the days of bloating budgeted comic book films and over-used CGI atrocities, Argo is a breath of fresh air for mainstream Hollywood. Also, it’s just a damn good flick.
Tags: Alan Arkin, Argo, Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Chris Messina, John Goodman