D: Ben Affleck. W: Chris Terrio. DP: Rodrigo Prieto. Starring: Ben Affleck/Bryan Cranston/John Goodman/Alan Arkin/Victor Garber/Tate Donovan/Clea DuVall/Scoot McNairy/Rory Cochrane/Kyle Chandler/Chris Messina/Kerry Bishe. (NOTE: Script based on Joshuah Bearman’s article “Escape from Tehran.”)
Already a festival and critical darling before its wide release, Argo marks actor/writer Ben Affleck’s third directorial effort. 2007’s Gone Baby Gone and 2010’s The Town were not only successful, but also affirmed Affleck’s good taste in adaptable material. Argo is no exception. Keeping with his theme of interpreting strong established material, Affleck ups the anti in tackling a real life rescue mission.
Argo, of course, refers to a fake science fiction movie the CIA operative, Tony Mendez (Affleck), fake produced and scouted for as a guise while actually shepherding American diplomatic hostages out of Iran in 1980. In conjunction with the Canadian government, Affleck’s Mendez created an elaborate farce to get in and out of the country. Luckily this farce makes for a great story. Taking the lead (on and off camera), Affleck deftly balances the tense danger of Iran and the hostages with the second hand tension in the CIA offices and Hollywood production offices of Argo.
Affleck might have learned a few things from his 2009 acting turn in State of Play, but we’ll never know. His film actually succeeds where that one failed. Not only is the premise much more succulent, but there is so much tension from start to finish you hardly breathe until it’s over. Familiar experiences like customs crossings become dangerous mind fields of fear and most audiences will end up forgetting that they already know the outcome. Thankfully some light moments with the brilliant John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Hollywood archetypes allow you to laugh (even if one joke is redone about three times too much).
This balance between two parts of the world also visually allows Argo to explore how information is circulated and lives that exist on the same planet can be so disconnected. Victor Garber, as the Canadian Ambassador in Iran, acts as this bridge between worlds and helps ground the group dynamic of his hostages. In the modern age of technology it is easy to buy into the compulsive use of the internet and cell phones. But let’s not forget there was an age before that! The hostage group, all masterly handled by the actors, effortlessly allows the film to remain personal and engaging. Affleck helps this engagement by using close-ups and tight shots that bring out the suffocation and fear of the hostages.
One of the few pitfalls of Argo is that Affleck gives himself a bit too many glamour/tortured Daddy moments. Understandably Affleck’s acting presence helps get his movies made. However, in this scenario he should have concentrated a bit less on these moments as the true story lies in the action of his character and his intelligent thinking on his feet. This does not ruin the film, but certainty detracted from its mood and rhythm. Thankfully, the man can grow a decade appropriate beard as well.