With Gone Baby Gone, writer/director/producer/actor Ben Affleck showed that he could stand behind the camera and direct a competent film. With The Town, he showed that his first feature wasn’t a fluke, that he was actually a good director. With Argo, Ben Affleck comfortably joins the ranks of America’s best living filmmakers and easily outpaces any other actor/director currently working in Hollywood. Forget Robert Redford, George Clooney, or Clint Eastwood. Based on his first three movies now, Ben Affleck has been remarkably more consistent at turning in great movies than any other actor/director this side of Cassavetes. Argo is one of the best all around pictures of the year, benefiting from a fantastic script, brilliant performances, and sure handed direction.
In a prologue consisting of animated storyboards accompanied by voice over narration, we’re given a brief history of Iran and its swift descent into Islamic radicalism. We’re quickly brought up to speed on the political state of Iran at the time the United States embassy was stormed by followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the movie begins in earnest. In these early scenes, Affleck exhibits the skills of a first rate storyteller by pushing a lot of information at the audience and yet presenting it quickly and in an easily digestible manner.
This particular story chronicles the efforts of CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to “exfilitrate” the six Americans who took shelter at the Canadian Ambassador’s home on the eve of the hostage crisis. Hidden within the belly of a radical police state, the Americans stood little chance of escaping the country. So how did Mendez get them out? Why, by fabricating such an outrageous lie that the Iranian government almost had no choice but to believe it. Mendez came up with the idea to pose as a Canadian associate producer on a science fiction B-movie; the would-be hostages were given fake identities as members of his film crew. Then they were to fly out of the country with the Iranians none the wiser.
Early scenes in which Mendez heads to Hollywood to enlist outside help in concocting his story function as a love letter to Hollywood. John Goodman plays the Oscar winning make-up wizard, John Chambers, who introduced Mendez into Tinseltown; Alan Arkin plays the bombastic producer, Lester Siegel, who helped publicize the lie. Most of the humor in Argo comes as the two jaded Hollywood veterans work with Mendez to manipulate the system and create their fake movie. In one memorable hilarious scene, Siegel essentially cons a smarmy producer out of a terrible science fiction script. In another sequence, Chambers and Siegel fool the press into advertising for their phony movie. Goodman and Arkin infuse their characters with weariness and dry wit and end up turning in the best performances of the film.
After the cover story is established, the picture shifts gears as Mendez arrives in Iran to make contact with the besieged Americans. Affleck adroitly manages these sequences, keeping things from becoming unbearably grim, but also ratcheting up the tension as the plot requires. It’s a testament to Affleck’s ability that, even though we know exactly how Argo is going to end, the movie still manages to be intense and thrilling.
In the end, Affleck has created a movie that’s at once a brilliant espionage thriller while also being a fantastic period piece. I wasn’t born until the ‘80s, but I’ve seen enough movies and television shows from the ‘70s to feel comfortable saying that the filmmakers here managed to capture the look and feel of that tumultuous decade. Furthermore, not only do the costumes, sets, and props look faithful to the period, but the movie itself feels like something that could have been made during that time period.
Unlike the cheesy, aborted project from which Argo takes its namesake, this movie is every bit as good as the best espionage and political dramas of the 1970’s. Far removed from the cheap, science fiction pictures of the ‘70s, this Argo is every bit as captivating as The Day of the Jackal or All the President’s Men. The cast is brilliant, the script is sharp and witty, and Affleck eschews the rapid cut editing of this decade for the more methodic techniques of a seemingly bygone era in filmmaking. Affleck’s Argo is a legitimately great movie, one that any movie fan can’t afford to miss.