The career transformation of movie star turned director Ben Affleck receives a third validation with his stirring new film, Argo. Affleck has had the fortune of working with many great filmmakers in his twenty-plus years as an actor but, as recently as ten years ago, embarrassing star vehicles like Gigli, Surviving Christmas and the successful but awful Daredevil threatened to overshadow the films that worked. Along came Gone Baby, Gone and The Town, Affleck’s first two directed films that were among the best of their year. As a director, his generosity with actors, attention to authenticity and period detail and skill at storytelling is alarmingly good.
His new film begins with a terrifying sequence: the U.S. Embassy in Tehran being raided by an army of fierce, angry anti-American protesters in 1979. The lead up to the Iran hostage crisis is staged like a massive prison riot, as the noise grows louder as the rioters get closer and closer. The tension in this scene and many others throughout the film is nearly unbearable.
A CIA hostage specialist named Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) is brought in to assess a dire situation: six Americans escaped, are hiding and, if found, will be made political martyrs if militant extremists get to them first. Mendez’s insane but clever plan: establish contact with Hollywood filmmakers, create publicity for a fake sci-fi movie named Argo and proceed to the Middle East, in the midst of the country’s political strife, to rescue the escapees by giving them new identities as filmmakers. Amazingly, this is a true story.
In his second film, The Town, Affleck gave himself the lead role, showcasing some of his best work as an actor but also giving the tremendous cast around him considerable time in the spotlight. Here, even though Mendez is the starring role, Affleck is merely a part of the ensemble and, once again, allows everyone room to deliver.
The smaller roles are full of seldom seen character actors like Tate Donavan and Clea DuVall (both standouts as two of the six in hiding), while Bryan Cranston and Kyle Chandler are solid as members of the CIA. It’s hard to say who steals the movie more outright but it’s either John Goodman or Alan Arkin. Goodman is reliably wonderful as a movie makeup artist and Arkin is terrific as a veteran filmmaker, both of whom orchestrate the Argo ruse in Hollywood that gives credibility to Mendez’s elaborate escape plan.
In addition to the superb cast, Affleck keeps the suspense intact from start to finish. Even the comic interludes of Hollywood phoniness don’t undercut the tension, which builds to nail biting levels during the final hour. Affleck’s first two directorial efforts displayed a rare and alarmingly gritty look at life in Boston; here, the 1970s period details are spot on in every scene and a feel for the time and place is solidly established.
One of the first images on screen is that of a burning American flag, which is countered by the flag’s Norman Rockwell-like appearance in one of the last scenes. Affleck’s film is one of the most patriotic I’ve seen in some time. Some of it feels a little much, especially during the wrap-up scenes and the end credits. Thankfully, Affleck avoids Michael Bay levels of pro-U.S. sentiment at cartoonish levels and instead keeps the emphasis on crafting a great story.
The material is edgy but not always given the in-depth balance a documentary could have provided. Affleck counters this by keeping his story in motion, while the audience holds their breath in anticipation.
★ ★ ★ ★
Rated R / 120 Min.