“You could teach a rhesus monkey to direct in a day.”
When you get right down to it, there is no more pure way to evaluate a director’s success than how much he or she improves with each successive film. Using solely this criteria, Ben Affleck is one of the best directors working in American cinema. His first film behind the camera was 2007’s excellent Gone Baby Gone, followed in 2010 by the even better The Town. 2012 has seen him direct his best film yet, and arguably, one of the best thrillers in recent years, Argo.
Based, like so many great true stories, on a footnote from history, Argo tells another side of the 1979-1981 Iran Hostage Crisis. Six workers at the American Embassy in Iran escaped when the building was being seized, and hid out at the home of the Canadian Ambassador. When word reaches the CIA, they set in motion a series of half-baked plans to extract the Americans from Iran. The only idea that gains any traction however, is one posed by Tony Mendez (Affleck) to pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a phony sci-fi flick titled Argo.
Mendez travels to Hollywood to meet with makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to see what sort of material he can gather to make this idea work. They team up with producer Lester Siegel (the brilliant Alan Arkin), who sets them up with everything they need, from a fake cast to posters and press junkets. The major hiccup in the plan however, is that Mendez will have less than 48 hours once he’s in Iran to prep the six people and get them out with a sound enough alibi that can fool the Iranian military & government.
The story first came to light when it was declassified by President Clinton in the mid-90s, and an article written by Joshuah Bearman appeared in Wired magazine. The story is compelling and gripping enough on its own, but Affleck and his screenwriter Chris Terrio turn it into first rate drama. The way that they layer on complications and potential roadblocks that threaten to derail the mission at any moment, is masterful. The film’s 120 minutes fly by, even though it’s as unnerving as any two hours I’ve spent in a movie theater.
The true mark of why it’s such a great film, however, is the way it effortlessly weaves humor into the film. The portions set in Hollywood are hilarious, with Arkin getting most of the best lines and relishing every minute of his screen time. The humor brings much needed levity to the dense subject matter, and never distracts from the main tension at hand; merely alleviates it enough to make the whole experience more fulfilling.
The performances are outstanding, with Affleck using his effortless charm to prove why he became a movie star in the first place. The supporting cast is also great, including a small role from the always great Bryan Cranston, as well as Victor Garber as the Canadian Ambassador. The stand-out among the six Americans would probably be Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford, the most reluctant to participate member of the group. A scene late in the film between him and Affleck is underplayed very well, and ends up making what should have been a groan inducing scene into a touching coda to the story.
Ultimately, the credit for the film’s tremendous success belongs to Affleck. Like so many actors turned directors, he has a firm admiration for the films he was raised on, and never hesitates to give everyone else around him in the film their moment in the spotlight. He uses actors to their fullest, and uses the tropes of filmmakers like Cassavettes, Pakula & Lumet to great effect. All of his films feel strongly influenced by these and other great filmmakers of the 1970s, but this is the first time he has really stood on his own and showed how these influences have shaped him into a great filmmaker himself, rather than just paying homage.
Argo is a challenging, gripping, tense and hugely satisfying film. It is a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of that term, in that it’s not only engaging, but also enjoyable to people across many demographics. It’s a solid film that will hold the interest of just about anyone who buys a ticket to see it, and I can’t recommend any higher that you do. Ben Affleck has flipped the script on even his biggest critics. This is a grade-A effort on his part, and I eagerly look forward to whatever he directs in the future.
GO Rating: 4.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]