Ben Affleck never seemed to be anyone’s favourite actor. Not only did he feature as a punchline to a song in Team America, he seldom gets credit for the Oscar he won alongside his writing partner Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting. Despite some great films in his early career he appeared to go from (critical and financial) flop to flop. Though it’s hard to lay all the blame at his door, most people often did.
Despite a lot of positive attention for his portrayal of George Reeve in Hollywoodland, a year later he jumped behind the camera for his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone which opened to rave reviews. His next effort The Town (which he also starred in) was a commercial and critical success. Even his acting was getting better reviews. It’s through this that people can now say without irony that they’ll looking forward to the next Ben Affleck film…especially if he’s directing it.
Argo is based on the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981, when a large number of Iranian citizens stormed the US embassy. 6 members managed to escape where they took refuge in the house of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). The US knows where it’s trapped citizens are however can not risk extracting them without endangering their lives.
Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) who specialises in such cases. Initially brought in as a consultant, he quickly starts to point out the flaws in their plans. Although he offers no alternatives, he gets inspiration while watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV. His plan is to create a cover story that escapees are part of a Canadian film crew, scouting “exotic” locations in Iran for a sci fi film.
Along with his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), they enlist the help of Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who has helped the CIA in the past with disguises for their operatives. Chambers puts them in touch with film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and their plan begins to take shape. All they need to do is create a fake film production and make it “real”.
The film starts off with an animated backstory of the history of Iran that helps us understand as to why the Iranians are so pissed. Such a technique is usually reserved for quirky (shudder) indie comedies that usually puts me off the film before it even gets going. Here however, it works as it’s used as a clear narrative device and not an attempt to be hip. The opening scene is as brutal as it is tense. Throwing us into the rioting mob just minutes before they take the embassy lets us know that Affleck isn’t going to let the audience go until this film is done. Whenever the hostages or the escapees are on screen, there’s a sense that something bad is going to happen to them.
Considering the serious nature of the film, there’s more than a few laughs along the way, usually delivered by Goodman and Arkin who come from a world that appears to be the bastard child of Entourage and Mad Men. Both men are excellent in their roles and are used sparingly enough to allow the audience the chance to sit back in their seat, even if just for a couple of minutes.
Argo is a thriller however, and tension is the name of the game. Cranston portrays his role with an intensity that always threatens to boil over. Affleck’s take on Mendez is more relaxed. This is vital to his role in the film as he has to be the calming influence. If he cracks the escapees have no chance.
The only real criticisms to take from the film are its historical inaccuracies. Affleck himself admitted that they took a lot of dramatic license with the film, hence why “it’s based on a true story, rather than this is a true story”. Which is allowed in the movie world, especially if it works in favour of a better film. And with Argo it certainly does. No more than in the third act when the tension is turned up to 11 as Mendez puts his suicidal plan into motion.
With Gone Baby Gone Affleck hinted at where his true talent lies. That’s not to take away from his fine performances in The Town and Argo by any means, however both critics and audiences are loving his work behind the camera, and deservedly so.
Don’t bet against him putting another Oscar on his mantlepiece before he retires.