It appears as if sometime around/before 2007, Ben Affleck made the conscious decision to stop screwing around. Affleck has always been capable (look no further than his work as writer/actor in Good Will Hunting), but years of wasting his time with films like Pearl Harbor, Gigli, Daredevil etc., while mixing in the occasional Kevin Smith work resulted in many writing him off.
Now, he didn't completely shed his past at that point, appearing in 2008's He's Just Not That Into You. But the last handful of years have seen Affleck direct/write both Gone Baby Gone and The Town (which he also starred in), and also lead respectable films like The Company Men and State of Play. Now that I've basically summarized the man's career, let's get into his latest directorial/acting effort, Argo, which continues his hot streak.
Taking place in Tehran, smack-dab in the middle of the Iran hostage crisis of the late 70s/early 80s, Argo is the "based on a true story" tale of the unconventional covert mission to rescue six American diplomats hiding out in the Canadian Embassy. Lucky to escape a violent raid on the U.S. Embassy, the diplomats found themselves stranded when hostile security the airport and throughout the Iranian capital made exfiltration impossible.
After shooting down a series of implausible escape stories, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) devised a "so-crazy-it-might-work" plan: Mendez, posing as a Hollywood producer looking for shooting locations for a science-fiction movie, would fly into Tehran, and the six diplomats would act as his film crew and fly out of the country with him.
There's something inherently difficult about attempting to create a thriller out of a historical event, the outcome of which most people already are aware of. It's a testament to Affleck's direction that, despite this, I was engaged throughout, and actually found myself twisting a bit as Argo sped toward its conclusion. This tension owes a lot to some pretty perfect pacing and plotting.
The film opens with a brief but informative history lesson via storyboard-esque cartoon drawings, followed by a lengthy and completely frantic sequence depicting the takeover of the U.S. Embassy by rioters. The audience is grabbed immediately, and even though the film pulls back a bit before accelerating again, it never lets go.
Perhaps the film's strongest aspect is its aesthetic authenticity. Argo feels less like an imitation of the period and more like a movie actually made during that time. The art direction is perfect, with clothing and hairstyles that are so very 1970s (Affleck looks like a member of the Gibb family), and set pieces that are often indistinguishable from the locations the real events took place (Affleck incorporates actual historic footage so well that it's often difficult to distinguish between real and recreated). The CIA office scenes feel as if they were lifted All the President's Men. Even the retro Warner Brothers logo at the film's beginning is a nice touch. All of this is aided by a grainy cinematography that makes the whole thing feel old.
In terms of noteworthy acting, the performances on the Hollywood side of this "fake movie within a movie about a real event" would probably top that list. Not only do John Goodman as Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, and Alan Arkin (likely playing a bunch of executives rolled into one snarky movie producer) have the most personality, but they provide this life-or-death "experiment" with a surprising amount of comic relief. It never feels forced or out of place, however, even as they run the old "Argo fuck yourself" joke into the ground (that's the point).
Brian Cranston brings a little fire to the CIA side as the supervisor whose career may or may not ride on the outcome. As Mendez, Affleck gives an understated performance, displaying the quiet confidence a man in his position would need. It may not be flashy, but it's exactly what the role called for (and I can only assume it accurately reflects the real life Mendez as well).
All around, Argo is a really well made film. I'm not even sure I could point out a deficiency. I could say that there are aspects of the escape plan that are emphasized throughout that end up being downplayed a bit in the end, but that would be a bit of a grasp. Maybe the only thing there is to question is Argo's staying power. It's sure to be a darling come awards season, but it doesn't really strike me as the type of film that will stick with anyone. You see it, it's damn good, and it's exciting in the moment, and then you move on.
9 out of 11