Directed by Ben Affleck
Screenplay by Chris Terrio
Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
How long is Argo? 120 minutes.
What is Argo rated? R for language and some violent images.
The most suspenseful and powerful drama of the year.
Charlie Chaplin. Robert Redford. Clint Eastwood. Ben Affleck? If someone had said ten years ago that the star of Surviving Christmas and Gigli would become one of the most talented and shrewdly perceptive directors working in Hollywood, most people would have laughed in disbelief. Somehow, though, Affleck has become not only a masterful filmmaker and storyteller, but a voice that cinema desperately needs in this age of bland blockbusters and remake frenzy. His first film, Gone Baby Gone, was among the best films of 2007, a tense detective story that unfolds slowly and ends with a stunning revelation. The Town, his second feature and the first time he directed himself, was a step into more mainstream action movies while still focusing on a character-based story.
Now, Affleck has delivered Argo, his most compelling and mature film yet. With the confidence and skill of a veteran filmmaker, Affleck crafts a movie that is both a wonderful examination of a piece of U.S. history and an engaging and taut drama that has all the suspense of a classic spy film. In what is only his third outing as a director, Affleck steps way outside his comfort zone with a story that spans the globe, taking place in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C and Iran (his previous two films were set in his hometown of Boston). It’s also his first time working with material based on actual events. With incredible energy and heart, though, Affleck has produced a film that will finally get him a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards and put to rest any doubts about his abilities behind the camera.
While most Americans are familiar with the Iran hostage crisis in at least a cursory manner, few were aware of a secret extraction mission that took place behind the scenes during those troubling times. In 1979, Iran revolutionaries attacked the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 American citizens hostage. Miraculously, six Americans managed to escape and find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Led by the most senior employee, Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), the small group hides out while waiting for their inevitable discovery.
As the eyes of the entire country are watching news reports of the hostages, the CIA, FBI and White House are scrambling to get the six embassy employees out of the country before they are found, captured and, most likely, killed. Tony Mendez (Affleck) is a CIA “exfiltration” expert, having dealt with a number of dangerous and improbable missions throughout his career. His plan (the “best bad idea” they have) is to pass himself and the others off as a Canadian film crew visiting Iran on a location scout. With the help of Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and legendary producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Mendez prepares to pull off a massively intricate ruse in order to rescue six people whose lives are in imminent danger.
There are more than a few reasons why Affleck’s directorial work in Argo is so thoroughly impressive, but perhaps what is most immediately obvious is how well he balances the tense drama with genuine humor. While there is nothing comical about the traumatic ordeal that was experienced by the hostages or the six Americans hiding out, Affleck smartly sprinkles just enough comedy throughout the film to provide levity (and breathing room) in an otherwise unrelenting suspense film. The film’s comedic moments also work to highlight the absurdity of Mendenz’s proposed mission and the fact that it is the only plausible way of getting the people out alive.
Though the film runs just over two hours, it moves at a brisk pace without ever rushing the action. Being a movie about making a (fake) movie, Argo plays on the well-established belief that Hollywood is all about who you know. In a matter of days, Mendez, Chambers and Siegel are able to secure an actual script, purchase the rights, set up a fake movie studio and get coverage in Variety. Expediting the story in this way frees Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio to build the anticipation as the Iran rebels begin to sniff out the Americans and where they may be hiding. While the film spends a good amount of time with the six Americans, there is very little character development, save Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) who is adamantly opposed to Mendez’s plan and nearly causes the mission to self-destruct. Affleck has several very talented actors (Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishe) in the group, but they are relegated to emoting based on the events surrounding them as opposed to giving authentic performances. However, this is the film’s only real misstep.
Affleck’s crew also deserves serious praise for the amazingly detailed feel of the film. From Jacqueline West’s wonderfully accurate costume design to set decoration from Jan Pascale to the subtle yet effective cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, Argo perfectly represents the era in which it is set. Affleck captures both the 70s-style attitude of studio filmmaking and the B-movie feel of the sci-fi alien invasion flick Mendez is trying to pass off as real. Affleck has done his homework and his adaptable style as a director improves with each film.
Argo will undoubtedly rank among the best films of 2012 thanks to Affleck’s masterful work as director. Not only is the film a terrific representation of a terrible time in our country’s history, it is confirmation that we will continue to see great things from Affleck as his directing career evolves.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”