I think I will preface all future Ben Affleck directed movies with the following: if ten years I had told you that Ben Affleck would be a better director than Matt Damon is an actor, you could’ve punched me in the face and I would not have been upset at you about it. It makes no sense, and yet I will argue that it’s true.
The man has vision, direction and talent to spare, he’s smart enough to know when to put himself in a piece, and smart enough to know when to step back and let his brother do the heavy lifting. He surrounds himself time and time again with casts that would make Scorsese blush. Three films in, Affleck has a perfect track record and a fierce command of his craft. And Argo is hands down, no question about it, his best film to date. What’s Matt Damon done recently, anyways?
Based on the declassified CIA file, Argo is set during the 1979-1981 Iran Hostage Crisis, where the American embassy in Iran was overrun and all of the consulate’s employees were taken hostage. Except, as was later learned, for six people who escaped to the Canadian ambassador’s house shortly before the embassy was stormed. This posed a potential catastrophe for America, as the hostages inside the embassy, while prisoners, were arguably safer. No one was going to kill them with the whole world watching.
These six unaccounted-fors, however… needed help. Enter Antonio Mendez (Ben Affleck, looking quite dashing with his 70s hair), a CIA operative who specializes in getting people out of hard to get out of places. With the whole world watching Iran, the streets of Tehran packed, guards everywhere, Mendez does the only sensible thing and says, ‘Fuck it. Let’s make a movie.’ A great cover story to get his fellow Americans out of harm’s way, though not without severe risk while doing so.
Only life can write something like this. It’s so outside the realm of standard storytelling that no one could think of that on their own. There is not a wasted moment in this film. The very first scene is an animated summary of the shitty situation the West put Iran into, something so specific and well done that it oughtta be in history classes. It is an opening summation that can rival The Kingdom ’s opening credits. The first half of the film is a clear and concise set up of characters, motivations and stakes and when Affleck finally lands in Iran, the rest is a ruthless class in ramping up, suspense and drama.
The best films are those where you know the ending (they escape), but are still on the edge of your seat the whole time. By utilizing unseen ticking clocks and near misses, you will leave fingernail indents in the seats in the theater the entire last twenty minutes as the group slowly works its way through the streets of Tehran to the airport. Gripping doesn’t even begin to adequately describe this movie. And the best part, very little gunfire. There are no James Bond-esque heroics (though there is an airport “chase”, as it were, that could remind you of Casino Royale ), just a lot of preparation and careful execution.
The screenplay, written by Chris Terrio, is smart and efficient, but more than that, it’s always wickedly funny. Not ‘prat-fall’ funny, but there are a number of zingers, mainly delivered by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, that help lighten what could be a very, very dour affair. That’s something a lot of serious films forget, humor is often the best way to combat a crippling situation. I laughed more here than at some actual comedies this year.
And the cast! Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton and Clea Duvall. They might not be the biggest names, but that is one talented group of actors. Some of them have only one scene, yet all leave an impression on you. Even Affleck looks great next to these people, and he coaxes one great performance after another from everyone involved. John Goodman, always a great character actor, is filling up his resume with some great little bits and he’s positively a joy to watch in this. Cranston still looks weird with hair.
2012 is turning into a great year for films, giving some excellent blockbuster fare and with the release of Argo some thoroughly engaging adult oriented drama. This film is absolutely no joke. It is a reminder that sometimes, our clandestine organizations are doing the right thing for the country, we’ll just never hear about their successes because, well, clandestine. Ben Affleck is constantly evolving as a director and whatever film he decides to make next, you should make it a point to be there opening night for it.