Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler, and Chris Messina
Ben Affleck has re-invented himself as a top-tier director over the last 5 years. The Boston native was introduced to Hollywood as a writer when he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with actor/co-writer Matt Damon for their 1996 effort “Good Will Hunting.” Affleck made a name for himself as an indie darling featuring in Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy” and “Mallrats.” Later he broke into mainstream Hollywood with appearances in movies including Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor” but after a long string of flops, Affleck emerged as a director with “Gone Baby Gone” in 2007. In 2010, Affleck returned to the director’s chair with the action-packed heist film “The Town.” Now in 2012, Affleck, as always inspired by 1970s filmmaking in his work (IE the films of John Frankenheimer and Peter Yates), has fittingly set his new film in his favorite decade in “Argo.”
Based on the true story of six US Embassy workers trapped in hostile territory in Iran in 1979. The Iranian invasion ousted the Americans who were forced to flee to the Canadian Ambassador’s estate. The ordeal launched an anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and conversely an anti-Muslim state in the US. The film follows the C.I.A. pursuit of trying to get these “ghosts” out of Iran before the Ayatollah figures out their identities and wage war against the Americans and Canadians. The plot to fly under the Iranian radar to seize the Americans was to pose as a Canadian movie crew on a location-scouting venture for a campy science fiction film called “Argo.” The fictional “Argo” blends a Buck Rodgers narrative with Middle Eastern iconography. The movie “Argo” blends and balances tension, political intrigue, and high caliber filmmaking unlike Ben Affleck has delivered in his previous films.
The real revelation of “Argo” is creating the setting of a super taut mood. When the film opens with a brief history lesson of the situation and how the US and Iran were at odds in the 1950s through the 80s. This lesson is told in storyboards blended with actual footage from the era. This illustrates the Hollywood moviemaking aspects of the film and gives the audience the background of cinema not to give them an ajar feeling when the film hits its second act. At first, we’re introduced to the situation and the whole film feels like an introduction. Affleck puts the audience in a constant state of unease, only giving us enough information to get us through the movie.
The film is always moving and never stays still. It’s never dry, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio gives the audience enough comedy and laughs to feel comfortable. The relationship between C.I.A. Agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his higher-up Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) gives their scenes a sense of presence and tone. The audience is always aware of what’s going on in meeting rooms but then takes the time to cut away to TV news reports so we know what’s going on with the rest of the country. Everything is on “pins and needles” as the story unfolds. The movie doesn’t get bogged down with over-long character moments but uses those moments to add a certain flavor to the time.
It’s refreshing to watch a movie that is made for adults and trusts its audience to follow along with getting lost in the shuffle. The film shifts in its second act as we’re now introduced to its Hollywood elements. Big time Hollywood Producers Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman) are introduced and the film shifts into the bittersweet absurdity of the situation. Creating a fake Hollywood movie to save the lives of Americans is never taken for granted but the filmmakers and actors know that this is a good time for the audience to laugh and take a breath before the film gears up for its fantastic climax.
Affleck has really improved as a filmmaker in “Argo.” He shows his full range to deliver fully fleshed out characters, a compelling narrative, and intense situations. The climax of the film is reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear.” Wherein that film builds tension with its sound design, so does Affleck in “Argo.” The audience is on the edge of their seats as the American refugees are being escorted through a very public and heavily militarized commercial airport. The distinct personalities of the six Americans bleed out and for big stretches of the movie. We’re concerned with their safety. We see ourselves in their plight.
There was a lingering thought in the air of the film that shouldn’t be passed up. Affleck intentionally shows the Iranians as humanized peoples. They are not cartoons or overly stereotypical. The question is why. Why do the Iranians hate the US? Why are they willing to die to see the Americans out of their country? The answer is that the Americans are the oppressors. Iranians don’t hate freedom or the American Way, they hate that we’re occupying their country and exploiting their land for oil. As much as this film is about Americans and their safety, this idea of American Imperialism is rooted in the film.
What can be said about “Argo?” It’s a fantastic film and a showcase of mature filmmaking and moviegoing. It’s a highly engaging film with actual characters and actual ideas. Ben Affleck has enjoyed a second life as a director and “Argo” fulfills the promise of “Gone Baby Gone” in 2007. It’s a movie made from its influences but then branches out with its own style and signatures. It’s a real crowd-pleaser without pandering to the worst of an audience. “Argo” is definitely worth watching!