Ben Affleck has an uneven record when it comes to the quality of his performances as an actor. But there is another job he proven himself to be consistently adept at: directing. With his latest project “Argo,” Affleck confirms that he didn’t just get lucky with “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town.” He establishes that he can transcend tales set in his native Boston to craft a well-rounded historical drama with significant depth.
For those unfamiliar, “Argo” is based on the true story of CIA operative Tony Mendez, who snuck American diplomats out of Iran during the infamous hostage crisis from 1979-80. He accomplished this feat by concocting a daring plan to disguise them as a Canadian movie crew shooting a science fiction flick. To pull off the operation, Mendez partnered with Hollywood to make the production appear as legitimate as possible.
Affleck’s unique opening sequence in “Argo” uses an educational combination of Hollywood style storyboards, real news footage, and narration to set the stage for America’s involvement with Iran prior to the events of the movie. Following this background, he drops you into Iran in 1979 outside the United States Embassy, where you can feel a riot on the verge of erupting. You immediately find yourself in the thick of an angry, violent uprising, experiencing the same terror of staff members besieged in the U.S. Embassy.
One of the most impressive things about “Argo” is Affleck’s reconstruction of the time period’s mood. The film’s action encases you, to the point where you can almost smell and taste your surroundings. This effect is created by clothes, cars, hairstyles, props, music, and real news footage all from the time. Unlike most period pieces however, this one doesn't lean heavily on music to flesh out the setting; it’s refreshingly minimalist in that regard. There is a moment during the night before the operation though, where Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” perfectly captures the scene’s emotional atmosphere.
Another striking aspect about the movie is the incredibly effective tension that Affleck builds during this taut drama. Although you already know everyone makes it out alive, you can’t help getting a nervous feeling that they could still fail at any time. Affleck gives you the impression that you just can’t be absolutely sure the plan will work.
Despite his fantastic directing, Affleck’s performance as the lead character Tony Mendez is the least memorable. You might argue that he doesn’t bring enough vitality to the character, but perhaps his acting is intentionally understated so that his fantastic supporting cast can shine. That cast by the way includes John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, and Kyle Chandler to name a few talents. Goodman and Arkin especially, steal scenes as Mendez’s Hollywood collaborators, and Cranston excels as Tony’s nervous mid-level boss.
The least expected part about “Argo” is the abundance of humor in its dialogue. Cranston in particular has some hilarious lines like someone “sh**ing enough bricks to build the pyramids” or comparing a meeting with two high ranking officials to “talking to those old f**ks from ‘The Muppets.’” Sometimes however the film goes overboard with trying to be funny and the jokes are unnecessary. Mendez’s unmentionable quip about abortions falls into that category.
If you were on the fence before about Ben Affleck as a director, “Argo” is definitely worth giving him another chance. His film will surprise you with scope and range that you’d expect from a veteran filmmaker like Spielberg, Stone, Eastwood, or Redford. Let’s just hope his record as a director remains consistent.
My Grade: A