There was a time back around the release of the disaster “Gigli” that the name Ben Affleck seemed to be the punch-line of every Hollywood joke. No one took the guy seriously as he continually made poor decisions in the kind of films he chose to make and he seemed to be forever miscast. Two examples of this are John Woo’s “Paycheck”, and the superhero movie “Daredevil”. Affleck was always considered the weaker of the two, when he and his best friend Matt Damon hit the Hollywood scene and as Damon’s star continued to rise, it seemed that Affleck was destined to become a has-been fairly early in his life. That said, personally I have always liked Ben Affleck on screen, particularly his collaborations with Kevin Smith. He has a likable personality and is quite charismatic too, but there was no denying that a lot of his films were trash. His career took an incredible upturn back in 2007 though when he made his directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone”. What initially seemed like another actor getting a chance to direct just because of their celebrity rather than their talent, “Gone Baby Gone” proved to be anything but that, as Ben Affleck showed just how talented he was behind the camera. Three years later he followed it up with “The Town” proving that his debut was not a fluke, this time taking a starring role in the film too. It turns out that he understands his own needs as an actor better than most directors because he gives a great performance in “The Town” combined with his stellar work behind the camera. “Argo” is Affleck’s third film as director; can he keep his winning streak going?
“Argo” is set in 1979 during a period of revolution in Iran where the American Embassy has been seized and hostages taken. During the rampage, six American officials were able to escape the Embassy and hide out in the basement of the Canadian Ambassador’s Tehran home. After staying hidden for over two months with the dangers of getting caught increasing every day, the CIA and the Canadian Government come up with a plan to try and get the diplomats out of Iran. The CIA call in Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) who is an expert in extraction. After some initial brainstorming that comes up for naught, Mendez comes across the idea that he could fly in to Tehran and leave with the six under the guise that they are all working on a Canadian movie who are in Iran location scouting. Knowing that for the plan to work, they need everything to be as real as possible which includes having a shooting script ready that would suit locations in Iran. Mendez decides on a low budget “Star Wars” rip-off titled “Argo” to be the perfect candidate and then sets about first fooling Hollywood about the legitimacy of the project by holding casting calls, as well as inviting the media to the production announcement of “Argo”, sowing the seeds and creating a back story which ultimately would help convince the Iranians that “Argo” is the real deal. Mendez then creates roles for the diplomats to play from producers, director, cinematographer and location scout for the fake movie, that will have to be memorized back to front before they attempt to leave the country. There is no denying that the mission is full of immense risk which becomes even riskier as Iranian security forces start to work out who exactly the missing six diplomats are.
It is so good to be able to sit down and watch a film that is not only entertaining for its entire running time but for it to be intelligently made and not dumbed down, rather it respects its audience. It is safe to say that Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is an absolute triumph and he is indeed now three from three. There is just so much to like about this film that I do not know where to start. Personally I think the strongest aspect of “Argo” is its very intelligent script. Plot construction and dialogue are both exemplary, and in all honesty it was a breath of fresh air. I am so sick of terrible scripts where characters say the most inane things. There were a number of times I was just blown away by the fast paced and natural dialogue that was sprouted onscreen. What is also great about the script is that it creates a world full of grays as no-one is demonized in the film and although you could say that the Iranians are the “villain” of the film, the reasons for what they are doing are presented and explained within also (without being judged). Another aspect I liked in the writing was the subtle (and not so subtle) in-jokes in regards to Hollywood and movie making in general. There was a lightness to these scenes that I really responded to, but at the same time everything just felt so real. It is obvious that Ben Affleck understands the importance of a great script as it is common in all of his directorial outings, no doubt due to him being a screenwriter himself.
Another thing that Affleck obviously understands is how to cast a film because he has filled “Argo” with a phenomenal cast with veteran actors the likes of John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin. While you could say that Affleck is the lead of the film, “Argo” is really an ensemble piece and as good as each individual performance is, what is really impressive is just how well they work within the group. No one is trying to steal the spotlight from anyone else. Personally I thought Alan Arkin was truly amazing in his role of the producer of “Argo”, it is probably the showiest role in the film and he makes the most of every moment he is on screen. He understands that while he may have been something once, he is now past it, but still is smart enough to know how the industry works which helps in getting “Argo” to move forward in development. The scenes between John Goodman and Arkin are just brilliant with the two bouncing off each other; it is obvious that they are both having a hell of a fun time here. Bryan Cranston, who seems to be having a late career resurgence of late, was also extraordinary in his brief but very important role as Jack O’Donnell, one of Mendez’s CIA co-workers. Ben Affleck himself provides another fantastic performance in one of his own films filled with nuance and emotion, as we witness the stress of having to get these people to safety is having on his family life.
Another thing that makes “Argo” so compelling is Affleck’s attention to period detail. From the costumes to the locations, everything just feels of the period, it all looks so right. Amazingly, Affleck has done such a good job with the opening of the film in regards to detail that he was able to combine production footage with real footage (did I mention this film is based on a true story?) of the times. In fact, newsreel footage of the crisis is sprinkled throughout the film combined with dramatic reenactments of certain moments. One of the most impressive things when it comes to detail is the look of the diplomats. When the end credits of “Argo” begin we are witness to photos of the real people that the film is based on, and all of them almost look identical to the actors playing them in “Argo”. It is no doubt that these actors were chosen due to their likeness of the original counterparts. One of my gripes with “Argo” though has to do with the fact that we are never really given access to the diplomats throughout the film. We do not understand where the group is psychologically before the attempted rescue begins therefore it is hard to gauge whether or not members of the group could be a liability to the success of the mission. In fact, for the majority of “Argo” we really know very little of these six people. Getting back to the authenticity of the film, Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is beautifully gritty harkening back to the great political thrillers of the 1970s. Thankfully Affleck and Prieto decided to shoot the film on celluloid to create that heavily grainy look that was so noticeable to films of that era. During the opening of the film the camera work is very shaky representing the urgency of the moment but it settles down after this and is shot in a more classical style. Although the camera work is never flashy, there is quite a number of really impressive camera moves throughout. One in particular is when Mendez enters the CIA building and it weaves amongst the offices and Mendez himself until it ends in O’Donnell’s office.
Something that I very rarely talk about is the editing of films but William Goldenberg’s work here is just stellar throughout “Argo” that it just has to be mentioned. There are a number of times he cross-cuts between two events that are so beautifully done that it just feels so organic and is never once confusing. Goldenberg also creates a rhythm within the film that increases as the film’s suspense increases until it is unbearable in the white knuckle finale. Speaking of the ending, although it starts to feel more like a movie here rather than a document of a time, Affleck has created some of the most high-tension suspense I have felt in a film for ages.
When it comes to negatives for “Argo” they are few and far between. I have mentioned that I felt that the diplomat characters were not explored as deep as I would have liked, but other than a few historical inaccuracies made to streamline the film, there is little to dislike about “Argo”. In regards to those inaccuracies I should point out that because I knew nothing about this story prior to the film, they did not affect me, but apparently the fact that Ben Affleck totally downplayed both the British and New Zealand Embassy’s part in the protection and extraction of the six has rubbed some people the wrong way. The only other thing that I would have liked was to have the story of the actual American hostages at the Embassy be brought to the forefront a little more. While I understand this is not their story and that they are always in the background, I still wanted a little more explanation about what was going on with the hostages.
Overall, Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is an absolute success and one of the best films of the year so far. Directorially, Affleck is going from strength to strength with each picture he makes. I love his portrait of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80, it is layered (I loved the little moments where American culture is seen taking over Tehran), full of drama and incredibly suspenseful. The film is packed with brilliant performances throughout and the attention to detail shown in regards to the period is outstanding. I expect we will hear a lot about “Argo” around awards time and so we should, because it deserves all the praise it is getting, and if you don’t agree with me “Argo….fuck yourself”.