Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Ben Affleck is on a roll. After silencing his critics with ‘Gone Baby Gone’ (2007) and ‘The Town’ (2010), he goes one step further and erases the farce that was ‘Daredevil’ and ‘Gigli’ with the impeccable ‘Argo’; confirming his membership in the exclusive club of actors-turned-directors whose members include the likes of Clint Eastwood, Kenneth Branagh and George Clooney.
‘Argo’, Affleck’s third directorial outing has been getting some Oscar buzz (a ‘Best Film’ contender we hear) and for good reason. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Hollywood movie: a compelling plot based on a true story, brisk editing, a pace that moves the story from action thriller to Hollywood satire to riveting hostage drama, a great cast and gorgeously rendered shots by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. Don’t be surprised if it gets some other Oscar nods, from screenwriting to directing; ‘Argo’ is truly that good.
Affleck also produces and stars in this film. Loosely based on a CIA operation, the action takes place during the 1979 Iranian Revolution as a US embassy in Tehran is overrun by Islamic militants. Six American staff escape and hole up with Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), but with no clear way to get out of the country, CIA exfiltration whizz Tony Mendez (Affleck) hatches a cockamamie plan to bust them out before they are caught and beheaded, which is to stage a location scout in Iran for a fake movie using key crew roles as the hostages’ cover.
To make the ruse more convincing, Mendez sets up a phony production company in Hollywood. Two showbiz old-timers (Alan Arkin and John Goodman) get the fake movie noticed by the media, conducting auditions and taking out an option on a notoriously terrible screenplay.
This is where Affleck shines as a director, deftly shifting the tone of the movie effortlessly from gripping drama to dark comedy and back again. We’re impressed that Affleck manages to pull this off despite this being only his third try as a director.
Let’s also not forget to mention the standout pacing of the movie. Like a ticking time bomb, Affleck takes his time to build up the tension, simmering it excruciatingly slowly before letting it burst into a breathless pace. A great example of this is the scene in Tehran Airport where Mendez and the six Americans are interrogated—you just have to pay attention to this.
The ensemble cast—Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Philip Baker Hall, Clea DuVall, Chris Messina, Arkin and Goodman—led by Affleck, delivered solid performances. Arkin as film producer Lester Siegel and Goodman as special effects makeup artist John Chambers were excellent in their humour but did not take away the movie’s intensity. Despite having little screen time, they had the best lines of the whole movie (“Argo-f***-yourself”, “You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day” or the hilarious “If I’m gonna make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!”). Kudos also to Affleck who portrays CIA agent Tony Mendez with quiet intensity.
From its eye to detail and solid performances to superb script and faultless directing, ‘Argo’ is classic movie making. It is hard to believe that ‘Argo’ is based on a real event and it’s refreshing to see America’s spy agency in a different way. With this, Affleck is certainly one director we should watch out for. To say that ‘Argo’ is nail-biting is an understatement; prepare to chew your entire arm off.