At this point in his career, any avid moviegoer is actually looking forward to Ben Affleck’s films. If you’d told me that 10 years ago, I would have laughed in your face. After all, Affleck was in more than his fair share of terrible movies, and it wasn’t until his 2007 directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone” that audiences were ready to take him seriously again. With “Argo,” Affleck proves that he’s got a handle on action, tension and entertaining dialogue, producing arguably his most accomplished work as a director yet.
Set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, “Argo” tells the story of six American embassy workers who managed to avoid capture by hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s home and the CIA’s attempts to return them to friendly soil. Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to consult on the project and ends up spearheading an initiative to smuggle the diplomats out as part of a film crew for a sci-fi film that doesn’t exist.
The most surprising thing about “Argo” is how funny it is. Most of the middle section of the film focuses on Mendez’s interactions with John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin,) his contacts in Hollywood, and the guys who help him get his fake production, a “Star Wars” rip-off called “Argo,” off the ground. Arkin and Goodman get “Argo’s” best dialogue by far, and Goodman shines with his wry, beautifully timed delivery of each and every line. For a good chunk of time, “Argo” is just as much a Hollywood satire as it is political thriller, and Affleck walks that tonal tightrope with grace.
When he dives into the situation in Iran, “Argo” is just as entertaining. Affleck stages the grand takeover of the American embassy fantastically, cutting between staged recreations and legitimate archival footage to harrowing effect. Once Mendez goes to Iran to rescue the diplomats, the film takes on some remarkable tension, especially in its third act. Affleck wrings some spectacularly squirmy suspense out of things as simple as waiting in an airport security line. The third act is fairly brilliant, bringing all of the film’s disparate elements together for a climax that’s subdued but no less excellent for it.
Affleck has also assembled a sprawling, impressive cast for his film. Actors like Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe and the wonderfully named Scoot McNairy all impress as the American diplomats. But the film’s ensemble truly shines when Affleck depicts the CIA’s involvement in their rescue. Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina and a passionate, fierce Bryan Cranston all show up here, turning in strong, effective performances. Affleck is arguably the star of the film, but his performance is quiet and understated, letting the actors around him stand out. It’s also worth mentioning just how well Affleck makes his film look like it was made, and set, in the ‘70s. Every detail of the production is measured to perfection, and each member of the cast is given some pretty heinous or majestic (depending on your taste) outfits and hairstyles to work with, all of which makes for an experience that feels retro, but not dated.
This weekend is full of films about movies. “Sinister” is an intelligent rumination on what we take away from horror movies, and “Seven Psychopaths” is a hilarious, self-aware look at violence in cinema. However, “Argo” is the best of the bunch: an intense but vastly entertaining story that proves once and for all that truth is stranger than fiction and that Ben Affleck is one of the best filmmakers working today.
Printed on Friday, October 12, 2012 as: Affleck ridicules Hollywood in historical, political thriller