I’ve been a fan of Ben Affleck’s ever since I first listened to his hilarious and endearing contribution to the raucous DVD commentary track for Kevin Smith’s Mallrats. (Seriously, track it down and give it a listen — it’s one of the best commentary tracks I’ve ever heard, second only to the track that same gang recorded for the original Criterion Collection DVD of Kevin Smith’s follow-up film, Chasing Amy.) I’ve always found Mr. Affleck to be an earnest, engaging performer, capable of nimbly balancing comedy and drama. Yes, he appeared in quite a number of terrible, terrible films, but that’s more a critique of his choices rather than his skills. But whereas Mr. Affleck has, in my opinion, always been a strong actor, he has proven to be a truly spectacular director. His first film, Gone Baby Gone, is a phenomenal film, one of my favorites of the last decade. I wasn’t quite as taken with The Town (click here for my review), but with the stunningly magnificent Argo, Mr. Affleck has solidified his reputation as one of the strongest directors working today. I do not believe I am exaggerating.
Based on the true story, declassified by President Clinton in the late nineties, Argo is set during the Iranian hostage crisis. Unbeknownst to the Iranians (but, to quote Spaceballs, knownst to us), six American embassy staff-members were able to escape and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. After months in hiding, the Iranians are beginning to close in on them. C.I.A. “exfil” (exfiltration) specialist Tony Mendez is brought in to find a way to safely bring the six Americans out of Iran. He concocts a loony-sounding scheme in which he will enter Iran and then help the six pose as a Canadian film crew scouting desert locations for a sci-fi film, Argo. Using their new covers, the plan is for Mendez and the six to walk, in broad daylight, right into the Iranian airport and fly out of the country to safety. It’s an crazy, insane story, all the more crazy and insane because the whole thing is true.
The film is riveting, and Mr. Affleck’s direction (ably assisted by a tight screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on a 2007 Wired article by Joshuah Bearman) is fantastic. It’s great to see Mr. Affleck moving out of the Boston location that was so central to his first two films, and I was extremely impressed with the way the he and his team were able to recreate 1970’s Iran, Washington, DC, and Hollywood.
The film’s opening immediately sets the stage for the story, and the intense tone for this true-life tale. In the opening sequence, we witness the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. It’s a terrifying sequence, one made all the more potent due to the terrible recent events in Benghazi on Sept. 11th, 2012. The idea of a violent assault on an American embassy isn’t just a story from the distant past. This is a terrible reality of today’s world, and watching the events of November 4, 1979, as depicted in Argo, is powerfully frightening. Even without the added relevance of recent events, it’s a powerhouse of a sequence, convincingly staged and executed.
From there, the story shifts back and forth between different groups: the six “houseguests” hiding out in Canadian Ambassador Ken Talyor (played in the film by the great Victor Garber)’s house; the American bureaucratic efforts undertaken by the State Department and then C.I.A. to find some way to extract the hostages; the Hollywood make-up artist and mogul roped into the scheme by Mr. Mendez, and of course Mr. Mendez himself, trying to navigate the politics and the very real dangers in Tehran to extract the six, and himself, alive. There are a lot of characters in the film, and I was impressed by how well the film is able to clearly establish and differentiate everyone so there’s never any confusion as to who is who. Particularly on the American bureaucratic side, the film makes a lot of hay from the dueling political interests represented by officials in the White House, the State Department, and the C.I.A. Those scenes of meetings in offices could have so easily been a boring, confusing mess, but a great script, impressive actors, and confident directing combine to make those scenes some of my favorite moments in the film.
In all of his films, Mr. Affleck has shown a great eye for casting, and that’s a huge reason why those bureaucratic scenes work. When you’ve got Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Zeljko Ivanek (24), Titus Welliver (Lost), Bob Gunton (The Shawshank Redemption), Keith Szarabajka (The Dark Knight) and Chris Messina (having a hell of a year with major roles in The Newsroom, Mindy Kaling’s new show The Mindy Project, Celeste and Jesse Forever (click here for my review), along with this film), in those scenes, they are guaranteed to crackle. (You might not recognize all of those names I just listed, but I’d bet you’d recognize the faces of those fantastic character actors.) Bryan Cranston (Malcolm in the Middle, Breaking Bad) is fantastic as Mendez’s C.I.A. boss Jack O’Donnell, his craggy face showing us a world of weariness but also toughness and decency, a combination I hope against hope every real-life C.I.A. division head actually possesses.
The most stand-out section of the film is, of course, the week Mendez spends in Hollywood, trying to establish his fake credentials by actually setting up a real production company that will produce his fake sci-fi film, Argo. This is the most outwardly comedic portion of the film, and it is indeed very, very funny. (Most of the great lines in the film’s trailer come from his segment.) This section could easily stand out like a sore thumb in this otherwise serious drama, but somehow it all works effortlessly. Again, the great casting comes into play, with John Goodman playing (real-life) make-up artist John Chambers (who worked on Star Trek and Planet of the Apes, and was a friend of Mr. Mendez’s) and the great Alan Arkin playing (made-up for the movie) mogul Lester Siegel. They’re both fantastic, and the two become a sort of deranged buddy-movie duo as the film progresses. Mr. Arkin is particular is magnificent, and he has a scene with the also-amazing Richard Kind (Yes! Richard Kind! There are so many great actors in this movie!!) that is one of my favorite moments in a movie so far this year.
As the film rushes breathlessly forward, Mr. Affleck is able to continually tighten the screws on the audience, ratcheting up the tension to nailbiting levels by the time the films reaches its climax and the six “houseguests,” accompanied by Mr. Mendez, enter the airport. It’s compelling, impressive work, and by the way, Mr. Affleck also does some damn fine work in the film as an actor. He brings a sort of beaten-down fatigue, but also great honor, to the role of Tony Mendez. He makes the man easy to root for, without turning him into any kind of boy-scout super-hero.
Watching the film, there were a few moments that stood out to me and made me question the veracity of the story as depicted on screen. Some of these were minor. For example, during the Hollywood scenes, we see a table-read of the Argo script. It’s a humorous moment, as we see lots of actors in all sorts of goofy, cheesy sci-fi costumes. But, really, has there even in history been a table read done in full costume?? I highly doubt it. I was also a little bit confused at how John Goodman’s character, who seems to be rather washed-up when we first meet him, doing makeup for a terrible-looking horror film, is able to so easily get access to Alan Arkin’s character, who seems to be a mogul. OK, maybe I can believe he could get a meeting, but would the two then really spend so much time hanging out AFTER that meeting? That doesn’t seem to fit the characters as established. I’m also not sure I buy the Iranians-racing-after-the-plane bit at the very end of the film. It’s exciting as hell, but I have a hard time believing that really happened. (And, indeed, I was disappointed to read that several elements of the film’s climax, including that beat, seem to have been fictionalized. I rather wish the filmmakers had stuck closer to actual events rather than feeling the need to fictionalize. This takes the film down a little bit in my estimation from the high I felt walking out of the theatre.)
Despite those issues, Argo is one of the best films I’ve seen in the theatre in quite a while. Fall is always Oscar-season, when serious adult-minded movies arrive after the glut of summer escapism. Argo announces the start of the Oscar season with gusto, and I’d be shocked if this film didn’t wind up on my year’s end best-of list. It’s a funny, it’s intense, it’s powerful. I am eager to see what Mr. Affleck does next.