By Linc Leifeste | October 11, 2012
Director: Ben Affleck
Writers: Chris Terrio (screenplay), Joshuah Bearman (article)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler
It’s clear from the beginning of Argo, with its opening vintage Warner Brothers logo and intentional grain, that this is Ben Affleck’s love letter to 70’s American cinema. Focusing on a lesser known chapter of the 1979 Iranian revolution and resulting hostage crisis, Affleck does a more than credible job of capturing the look and feel of the time period in an ably crafted thriller about six Americans who managed to escape the embassy to hide out in the Canadian ambassador’s residence and the government’s attempt to clandestinely extradite them from the country. As both a fan of 70’s American political thrillers and a skeptic of Ben Affleck’s acting and directing abilities, I’m as surprised as anyone that Affleck has managed to pull it off so successfully. Not to say that his recurring problems with sentimentality and contrived and unnecessarily dramatic storytelling have vanished but I found Argo to be, by far, his strongest directorial effort thus far in his career.
In an effort to craft an arguably nuanced film, a worthwhile endeavor considering the current level of anti-Iranian and anti-Muslim sentiment in segments of American culture, the film opens with a short animated history lesson on America’s unethical involvement in the 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian president Mohammed Mosaddegh and the suffering of the Iranian people during the following decades-long rule of the U.S.-backed Shah. From there the film jumps headfirst into the tense and claustrophobic scenes playing out inside the US embassy as it is surrounded and ultimately besieged by militant revolutionaries.
After putting the audience on the edge of its collective seat, Affleck slows things down by moving the focus back stateside, focusing on the government’s effort to come up with a rescue plan for the six escapees. Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), a Central Intelligence Agency “exfiltration” expert brought in to assist a State Department in over its head. A reserved man with a hint of sadness in his eyes, it is during a phone conversation with his son (who is staying with his mother during a trial separation) that Mendez hatches the idea of ferrying the escapees out of Iran by posing as a Canadian film crew.
To flesh out his idea he approaches an old Hollywood colleague, John Chambers (John Goodman), a veteran makeup artist whose credits include Planet of the Apes. They decide that in order to pull off such an unlikely job they’ll need to make it look real so they recruit veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and begin the search for an actual script, the drafting of storyboards, and the scheduling of a publicity event. Thus is born the staged saga of Argo, a sci-fi B movie, for which the crew will be visiting Iran to scout possible filming locations. Of course, his “crew” is already in hiding in Iran so the plan will have complications but it has potential.
The whole Hollywood segment of Argo allows Affleck and his actors a chance to flex their comedic muscles, a nice counterpoint to the ever increasing tension and growing despair among the six refugees in Iran. If you’ve seen the trailer you also know that Affleck takes this opportunity to poke some fun at aspects of Hollywood culture while also highlighting its less publicized patriotic side. Goodman and particularly Arkin shine in their supporting roles as crusty Hollywood veterans who find themselves fully invested in the outcome of their latest gig.
From there, it’s back to Iran and full-on tension, all comic pretension a thing of the past. And while the film succeeds in building the tension and drama in its final chapter, it falters for me in the closing airport sequence as Affleck goes for the throat by ramping the dramatic tension up past my breaking point, appying the cinematically lazy and overused cross-cutting technique to go back and forth between the white-knuckled Americans aboard the plane that is their lifeline and the Iranian revolutionaries who are on to their escape, racing against time and Hollywood to stop the plane from leaving. Affleck takes the tension up to the last possible second and highest possible level before the conflict is resolved and I found it to feel too much like Hollywood and too little like reality. Much as Affleck did in his restrained performance as Mendez, it might have helped for him to dial down his more dramatic tendencies in closing the deal.