Remember when everyone hated Ben Affleck? It certainly does seem like a long time ago now, following Affleck’s incredibly successful re-invigoration off the back of his two directing efforts; the involving Gone Baby Bone and the tense Heat-like The Town. It was no mean feat. Affleck began his career in fine style, with an Oscar under his belt for his script (co-written with Matt Damon) for Good Will Hunting. Soon after, Affleck began appearing in a number of critical, but not necessarily commercial, flops; the likes of which included Pearl Harbor, Gigli, Paycheck, Surviving Christmas and Jersey Girl among them. Once upon a time, it seemed that Affleck could find no way to redeem himself. But low and behold, he found he had a talent in directing. His revival could perhaps be traced to his performance in the underrated Hollywoodland, but it truly was with Gone Baby Gone that Affleck once again staked a serious position withing Hollywood. And with Argo, he once again proves to be an exceptional talent behind, and in front, of the camera.
Argo tells the true story of the infamous ‘Canadian Caper’, set during the period of the Iran Hostage situation from 1979-1980, in which the Iranian Government saw a militant uprising, following the U.S. embassy sheltering the recently overthrown Shah. While other Americans in the Embassy are taken hostage, six American diplomats manage to escape and go to hide out in the Canadian ambassadors house. However, with the militant forces working their way towards finding out that they are missing six more Americans. With time running out, the US State Department begins to try to develop a plan in which to extract the six diplomats safely and securely. A CIA specialist, Tony Mendez (Affleck) is bought in as consultant, and whilst viewing a Planet of the Apes movie on television, he devises the ridiculous idea of him and the six diplomats posing as a Canadian film crew, scouting locations for a new sci-fi movie, entitled Argo. After establishing a believable back-story, complete with producers, script, storyboards and press articles promoting the movie; Mendez heads in to Iran to exact his plan. But of course, nothing ever goes according to plan.
I would advise, unless you lived through it, to avoid any information regarding the outcome of the real-life Argo operation before viewing this movie. The less you know the better. I very much allowed myself to become engrossed in the story, with no knowledge of what the outcome was going to be, and I personally believed I enjoyed the movie much more as a result. It is an incredibly interesting story, that if it wasn’t true would be hard to believe. It is amazing that this was the best bad idea that the government had, yet when the intricate nature of the plan is revealed; it certainly seemed detail enough to avoid pratfalls. Knowing the facts, I believe, would also distract from the character construction on display here, particularly devoted to Affleck himself, and the six diplomats trapped within Iran. Standing out amongst these six are Monsters’ Scoot McNairy, who anchors his role with a nervous disposition and understandable concerns, and the indelibly cute Kerry Bishe, who proves to be quite a surprise, proving her worth above the should-have-never-happened Season 9 of Scrubs.
However, it is outside of Iran that the cast truly shines. The film certainly feels more at ease within the moments outside of the Iranian conflicts, quite understandably so. It truly is to Affleck’s credit that he manages to balance these lighter moments with the more serious political outlook on the dark and violent conflicts of Iran’s past. Rather than levitate tension, the humour is designed to present a comfortable environment, before the plan is executed and before the nerves begin to be tested. And the cast sell this balance. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are the Hollywood players, who very much inject the movie with a bright and playful spirit; Goodman as make-up maestro John Chambers and Arkin as experienced producer Lester Siegel. Bryan Cranston as well adds to the more comic elements of the movie early on, before his character becomes much more involved in making sure that Mendez’s plan runs smoothly. Here, he employs a certain degree of Walter White intensity to get the blood boiling and to emphasize the threat of the situation. Not that we were completely oblivious to it to begin with.
The anchor of the movie though, both in terms of acting and style, has to be Affleck. His direction cleverly incorporates raw news footage form the period with fantastic period detail, from the clothes to the cars, to the general atmosphere of the entire picture. It certainly feels like it could have been plucked from the 70’s and brought forward to the 21st Century, as it would easily sit shoulder to shoulder with other political thrillers of the period, such as All the President’s Men and The French Connection. Affleck keeps his camera very tight and focused, yet also very fluid and panoramic; creating a sense of entrapment surrounded by the possibility of freedom. The editing is also a work of masterclass, particularly in the film’s final act as the tension racks up to a nerve-shredding outcome. However, impressive though his directing is, it is Ben Affleck the actor who deserves the most praise. His Mendez is the beating heart of this movie, the thing keeping it alive, keeping the blood flowing, whilst also being an entirely flawed character. His confidence in his work is certainly not mirrored by the structure of his broken home life. Affleck plays the role with ease; displaying the confidence that the six diplomats desperately cling on to, whilst also demonstrating a broken man underneath who, like the six diplomats, just wants to find a way to get back home and bring his family back together.
Argo does suffer from the usual tropes of films based on a true story. A strong Americano spirit fuels the finale of the movie that frankly feels out of place, as most of the conflict within Iran was down to American involvement within the country, and perhaps not enough time is given to Mendez’s personal life to truly give credit to Affleck’s layered performance. But the sheer brilliance of its construction and performances across the board carry you safely over the line. Affleck demonstrated a sure hand with drama in Gone Baby Gone, a confident stance with action in The Town, and now he has proven himself to be a craftsman of tension, and in someways a documentarian. I would certainly say that this is Affleck’s best movie thus far, he has truly grown into a mature, confident and versatile director, as each of his films feel incredibly different from one another. Will he peak at three? That remains to be seen, but the future certainly looks bright for the director Ben Affleck, and more impressively, the actor Ben Affleck. How do you like them apples!?