Over the last few years, Ben Affleck quietly transitioned from a decent actor to an excellent director. His debut, Gone Baby Gone, was a dark look into the seedy underbelly of his hometown, Boston, with Affleck’s brother Casey playing surrogate for Ben in front of the camera. In his follow-up, 2010’s The Town, Ben pulled double duty, directing and starring. While the action-packed Boston bank heist flick was not dissimilar to his first film in content and tone, it showed signs of Affleck maturing as a director. His latest, Argo, is his best effort to date, and puts him squarely in the upper echelon of actors-cum-directors, filling the empty chair right next to Clint Eastwood.
Argo is the true tale of a daring CIA rescue mission that scooped six Americans out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis, right under the noses of revolutionary mobs and a hostile government crying “Death To America.” Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, who masterminded the rescue effort, as a cool-but-subdued (by which I mean he only took his shirt off once) professional. His plan to evacuate the six Americans in plain sight under the guise of a Canadian film crew on a location-scouting trip has to be one of the gutsiest, most innovative moments in American history. With the embassy overrun and 44 other Americans held hostage on what should have been the one guaranteed safe haven in Tehran, one would think a daring rescue like this would be the stuff of legend. However, the true nature of the mission was not revealed to the public until 1997, when it was declassified (which must be the only reason this movie wasn’t already made). With the recent Benghazi embassy attacks, Argo couldn’t have come out at a more relevant time. Affleck is great at building tension, and that tension builds exponentially with the realism current events lend it.
From the soundtrack to the stage dressing, wardrobe and the archival news footage, Affleck transports viewers right back to the oil crisis early ’80s (be sure to stay tuned during the credits for a side-by-side comparison of frames from the film and the real-life photos they were based on. Of course, any politically-charged movie with a lot of Sorkin-style walk-and-talks is only as strong as the character actors tapped for the supporting roles, and this movie is a virtual who’s-who of “that guys” (you know, the people whose faces are recognizable but whose names are not usually plastered on the front of Entertainment Weekly). Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, fresh off his supporting turn in last year’s Drive, anchors the sub-Afflecks. He deserves a star turn of his own once his meth-cooking days are over. The inimitable Alan Arkin turns in an Oscar-worthy performance. Unfortunately for him, he turned it in in a year that features four other Academy Award-winners up for Best Supporting Actor. Still, he gets in the most memorable line of the film (not suitable for print) and gets in a great dig at Affleck’s recent foray into directing (“You could train a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day!”). John Goodman is equally impressive as John Chambers, the real-life prosthetics expert who used his cache as the makeup artist for Planet Of The Apes to make the titular fake film seem as real as anything else Hollywood was really cranking out.
I recommend this film highly. It is one of the best of the year, and likely one we will look back at as a turning point in Affleck’s directing career. Argo: see this movie!