Don’t look now, but Ben Affleck has become a major American filmmaker.
He’s actually three-for-three in his directorial efforts—Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and now Argo—with each film getting more ambitious, more accomplished, and just plain better.
And Argo is the work of confident filmmaker who knows he’s at the top of his game.
It’s 1979 and the U.S. Embassy in Iran (that’s Iran with an “n” for you younger readers) has been invaded by an angry mob. The scene is set up swiftly and expertly. We feel the burgeoning panic inside the embassy as the mob gets closer. Then at some point, the dim, hopeless realization sets in: The mob is going to penetrate the gates and nobody is coming to save them.
That was the day, of course, that the Iran hostage crisis began. Most of us know that story well: 52 Americans were taken prisoner. But few of us know about the other, so surreal-it-has-to-be-true story of the six diplomats who escaped to the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) and the unlikely mission to save them. (The film’s clever tagline is “based on a declassified true story.”)
Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfiltration” expert—now living in Frederick, MD!—called in to advise on how to extricate the diplomats in an extremely hostile environment. Ideas are bandied around: Send them bicycles (not with snow on the ground); have them appear to be from a famine relief mission (this is Iran, not Africa.) It’s when Mendez is home, watching The Planet of the Apes as he talks on the telephone to his son—Mendez and his wife are separated, accounting for his slightly sad sack demeanor—that the idea hits him: They can pose as a Canadian film crew, scouting locations for a sci-fi thriller.
When he brings his idea back to the CIA there is predictable resistance, but Mendez is confident. This leads to the great scene we’ve all seen in the trailer, where Mendez and his right-hand man Jack O’Donnell (Breaking Bad’s always welcome Bryan Cranston) approach the State Department, noting that there are no good options.
“You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” the Secretary of State says, in astonishment.
“This is the best bad idea we have, by far,” Jack says, grimly.
Humor is a key component of this film. Affleck knows that the stakes are life and death, but he also knows that the plan is the stuff of absurdist comedy. He directs this balance perfectly.
Argo is, among other things, a great send up of Hollywood. Mendez gets in contact with John Chambers (John Goodman) a jaded Hollywood prop man with ties to the CIA. He hooks Mendez up with Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), an aging Hollywood producer, rich but way past his prime, who seizes on this project as both a matter of patriotic duty and a last hurrah. They buy an actual cheesy script, do storyboards, even hold a press conference. The more legit they can make the project, the more likely they’ll pull it off. What they’re creating is, in fact, grand theater. And the two wily old pros know just how to make it work. (There’s actually a whole separate buddy film that breaks out between Goodman and Arkin and I loved it.)
So Mendez flies out to Iran and meets with the six diplomats—two young married couples, a longtime embassy employee, and a shaggy-haired interpreter. They need to adopt their new identities—as director, screenwriter, location scout, etc.—and buy into the mission completely. But they are justifiably freaked out. Staying put seems like a preferred option over this risky all-or-nothing gambit. But Mendez convinces them that no English-speaking Westerner is safe in Iran anymore. It’s commit to the plan thoroughly or die.
Two scenes, a risky fake location scout in the center of Tehran, and the torturous trek through security at the airport, are absolutely edge-of-your-seat tense. I love when I’m watching a film and I have to remind myself to breathe.
All the period details are brilliant, from the Star Wars mania, to the smoking on airplanes, to the costumes—every oversized pair of glasses, bushy mustache, and cinched peasant blouse feels spot on. My only minor quibble with the film? Yup, it’s Affleck himself. At this point, his gifts as a director have far surpassed his minor skills as an actor. He plays Mendez as low-key and cool, which is fine, but he’s almost too inscrutable. A great actor’s face has to be endlessly interesting, a puzzle, even when still. Affleck, while handsome (even in a heavy beard), just doesn’t have that kind of face.
Still, wow. Just wow. Argo is one of those films that reminds you why you love to go to movies in the first place. Bravo, Mr. Affleck. I can hardly wait to see where you’ll take us next.