Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Ben Affleck
Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston and John Goodman
Released: 7th November 2012
There is a scene in the The Town where Ben Affleck’s Doug MacRay is attempting to cover a certain clue on Jeremy Renner’s James Coughlin that could give away both of their identities to an unsuspecting Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). In this single scene Ben Affleck, the director, is able to put his audience in the most vulnerable of states as we feel as exposed to the possibility of this guys entire world shattering around him as he does. We are set in this moment and the tension is palpable. Affleck clearly has a gift for creating these types of moments on film that all have to do with pacing as he creates moment after moment of such suspense in his third directorial effort Argo. After exploring the cinematic landscape of his hometown of Boston in his first two films Affleck now seems to have the confidence to venture outside of this comfort zone and take on a story that deals with issues in the bigger scope of the world. What Affleck has now gone on to accomplish is to create what feels like a very authentic period piece that pulses with intrigue and keeps its audience first informed, second engaged, and third on the edge of their seat. It was clear from the vintage opening credits to the storyboard history lesson we receive in the first moments of the film that set the stage for the relationship between the United States and Iran at the time that everything here was meticulously planned out in order to elicit and implement the specific kinds of reactions and thoughts it wanted. This, for me, only exemplifies the kind of director Affleck is and shows us the care in which he takes on each project even if his craft does receive more attention because of his name. The point is the craft deserves the attention.
While much about Argo will dwell on the fact its directors former status in Hollywood was something of a poster boy for celebrity, a type-cast doofus who starred in more bad films than he could leverage with his early successes. Though Argo will get a lot of attention for this fact, that Affleck has solidified his status as a credible director having made a third above average film will forever change his reputation and how he is remembered and looked at in the cinematic landscape. What is more interesting obviously is to see how he has actually done this. He has done it with all three of his films, but he never allows it to be an outright, up-front obvious characteristic. He takes a type of film, one that clearly fits into a genre and has been defined by certain structures before and churns his movie on these archetypes that he doesn’t necessarily imitate but allows for them to unspool in a more natural manner that makes whatever his film is documenting all the more real, all the more genuine. It is especially stunning that Affleck can provide such a piece of Hollywood cinema while telling the story of historical events that most audiences would initially find more daunting that entertaining to sit through. This is not your standard film about a historical event though, it is the truly unbelievable story of when the Islamic people, in reaction to the United States taking in Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi after the Iranian people revolutionized and wanted his dynasty replaced with an Islamic republic. As these revolutions reached their boiling points the Iran militants stormed the U.S. embassy and took 52 hostages. Six Americans were able to escape and find refuge with the Canadian ambassadors. Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck) an “exfiltration” specialist who is assigned the task of conjuring up a plan to get these escapees out of the country.
With such a description, as I said before, it may sound like your typical actioner in which a hero protagonist is required to go through the motions in order to save the day and deliver a climax filled with excitement and explosions. When I say Affleck is able to churn these archetypes on their heels I mean that these very uniform script tools are still in place, but they are used in such a distinct, unexpected way. As if taking the ideals of an indie film and altering them to fit in this world of gripping, powerful, and generally uplifting tale that Hollywood likes to make so much. Allowing to further proclaim itself as a historical drama with entertainment roots Affleck gives a generally fine performance if not the main thing that stands out about the film. In fact, as much as you can applaud the guy for crafting such a fine film it is almost as if he left the thoughts about his own characterization on the back burner. Lucky for him, he has a lovely group of supporting actors here that take much of the focus from him. Whether it be bit roles such as Chris Messina and Kyle Chandler who show up in a few scenes (and who each deserve better exposure) to a nicely even Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell who serves as the face of the CIA to Affleck’s Mendez while he is in Iran trying to make the mission a successful one. Cranston brings an honesty to the role that is usually lost in these types of characters who are a culmination of what was likely several people in real life. The guys that really steal the show here though are the ones who make Mendez’s idea for the mission all the more authentic and in return all he more successful indeed. As Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers and legendary producer Lester Siegel John Goodman and Alan Arkin are in one sense the comic relief, but in another they are the heart if Mendez is the brain. Turning a folly of a Star Wars knock-off into the legitimate reason that saves the lives of these hostages proves to be something neither of these men were required to do and something they really had no need to put their business in at all. It makes you realize there are always those sterling people still existing even in a city full of imperfect beings.
In the end it comes down to the hostages though. Affleck has been smart enough to cast the majority of these roles with unknown actors (though an older Tate Donovan takes on the ringleader role) as to allow the audience to sympathize with them better, being able to see them for real people in a life-threatening situation rather than actors portraying how these people might have felt. That is also, the essential catch of Argo. It places you dead center in the middle of the conflict and hardly allows you to breathe. As if you were under water, against your will and only allowed to come every so often for a breath of air. It is a conventional thriller, but it rises above that word with all its negative connotations by being expertly acted and crafted. Each performance speaks to the bigger picture it is contributing to while the care taken by its director to convey a sense of authentication is enjoyable to take in. It is a movie that doesn’t necessarily feel designed or manipulated in any way so that it will gain awards show attention or even as the kind of film that is likely to be recognized by the Academy simply based on the way in which it decides to tell its story and the aforementioned reputation of the director who has now proved himself again and again. It is nice to see these things being disproved as Argo seems to be generating plenty of awards buzz, but none of that matters when you are glued to your seat with your nails literally up to your teeth and your eyelids ready to clinch as those six desperate hostages and the man who came up with a ludicrous idea about making a fake movie that would set them free walk through that airport or drive through that crowd or narrowly escape insults and accusations. All that matters in those moments are how sucked into the film you realize you’ve become. That isn’t the sign of a filmmaker who is out to validate himself by obtaining a statue; that is a filmmaker who truly enjoys the art of film and knows himself as well as any audience member what is required to have an experience rather than an excuse to escape.