Review: Ben Affleck's 'Argo' tells a transfixing true-life story
I think the thing I like most about Ben Affleck these days is that he didn't wait for someone else to rescue his career. He took control and he rescued himself.
"Argo" is the latest film from Affleck as a director, and I think it's a huge leap forward for him. I liked "Gone Baby Gone" more than I liked "The Town," which I thought was well-made but not a particularly great script. This time out, Affleck is working with a wonderful piece of material, telling a captivating true story, and he's put together an ensemble that any actor would be thrilled to be part of, all in service of a film that absolutely feels like it could make awards-giving groups happy while also serving as a cracking piece of entertainment. Those two things don't always go hand in hand, and Affleck deserves credit for taking what could easily have been a dry historical moment and turning it into as tense a thriller as you'll see in a theater all year.
I was nine years old during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and along with Watergate and the coverage of that scandal, it remains one of the defining political media memories for me. Day after day, seeing the paper and reading the headlines and watching TV and seeing that number go up every day… it created such a sense of ongoing dread, like the world was spinning out of control. I saw how anxious it made the adults around me, and I heard that anxiety reflected back in the other kids around me. We were soaking it up from our parents, and our parents, already anxious because of gas prices and a lack of faith in government and a million other mounting fears, couldn't help but pass it along to us. And when the whole thing finally came to a close, it was like all of America exhaled at once, like we got permission to finally start living and moving forward again. The backstory of what was happening behind the scenes was classified at the time, and only gradually have we been able to piece together everything that went on. I do remember the "Canadian escape" from when it happened, and how that one little hiccup of hope helped get us through until all the hostages were finally released.
Chris Terrio's screenplay, based on an article by Joshuah Bearman and a chapter from a book by Tony Mendez, takes the basic facts of what happened and brings them to life with smart, rich character writing for the entire ensemble, not just for a few leads. It's a huge cast, too. Affleck stars as Mendez, who was a CIA operative in charge of planning extractions from difficult situations. He's called in when the situation explodes in Iran. When the American embassy falls, six people manage to escape, and they take refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home, somehow staying under the radar completely. Cora and Mark Lijek (Clea Duvall and Christopher Denham), Kathy and Joe Stafford (Kerry Bishe and Scoot McNairy), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane) and Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) are safe, but unsure how long that can continue, unsure what to do. Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador, is played by Victor Garber, and he manages to get word to the CIA about the situation that is unfolding, which is when Mendez gets involved.
A number of ideas are floated by the people Mendez answers to, including Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) and Hamilton Jordan (Kyle Chandler), but conventional thinking seems insufficient. It's a once in a lifetime situation, requiring a major leap of logic on the part of Mendez. He's inspired by a late night viewing of "Battle For The Planet Of The Apes" with his son to create a fake science fiction film that is looking for exotic locations, requiring a trip to Iran. Creating fake identities for them, he will then leave the country with the six people in tow, naming them as his crew for the movie. It's a crazy plan, and it requires help from make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). While the trailers may make the film look like a comedy about the film industry, that's actually only a small part of what we see in the film, and Affleck never stops reminding us of the stakes for these people if they're caught.
Production designer Sharon Seymour and costume designer Jacqueline West both deserve high praise for the work they've done here, seamlessly recreating a very specific and highly documented time and place. Likewise, Rodrigo Prieto's photography is key in selling the period. The film is absolutely overstuffed with grace notes, details that make the film feel more like it was made at the actual time than like any sort of period piece. Obviously, that's also because of the efforts of the hair and make-up department, the art direction, the set decoration… every single department had to work at their peak to make it feel right, and Affleck's gotten great work from everyone. On top of that, the performances are, across the board, excellent. There is certainly pleasure to be taken from watching John Goodman and Alan Arkin trade sharp and punchy dialogue, but many of the lesser-known performers do equally precise and impressive work. During the closing credits, we see images of the real people next to stills of the actors, and it is startling how close everyone is. That wouldn't matter if they couldn't also do nuanced and authentic work, but these aren't mere look-alikes.
Affleck's eye as a director is relentlessly curious, constantly looking for the details that sell the emotion or the tension or the subtext, and it feels like he's become very confident. More than that, he is strong enough as a filmmaker to resist the urge to do anything flashy. Even when he really starts turning the screws towards the end of the film, milking every bit of suspense from what happens, it's done in a very clean, unaffected manner. It's the sign of real maturity from a filmmaker, and "Argo" left me excited to see where he goes from here. This is a smart, adult picture, an impressively mounted telling of a true story, and one of the things that was most exciting about seeing it in Toronto at the gala premiere was listening to the reaction of the largely Canadian audience around me as they realized that the history they've been taught for the last thirty years was only part of the story, and a victory they've been able to claim as their own was actually a shared effort. Stay till the very end of the credits for an amazing bit of archival footage that gave me new respect for a much-maligned American President. Like Affleck himself, the film gives us a new reason to respect him, one that had only been hinted at until now.
"Argo" opens October 12.