Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Chris Terrio, from the article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall
Length: 120 min.
Sooner or later Ben Affleck had to leave Boston.
As co-writer of the Academy Award-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant 1997) and director of the critically acclaimed one-two punch of Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), Affleck’s abilities as a filmmaker have seemingly hinged on his deeply ingrained understanding of the lower socioeconomic landscapes of Massachusetts and the violent and criminal ‘Townie’ mentality of his childhood home. What David Simon has done for Baltimore through The Wire and New Orleans via Treme, Affleck has achieved in all three of these fascinating cinematic autopsies of Boston and its people.
However, a test of Affleck’s real potential and range as a director was always going to be dependent on whether his films would be as clever and complex if they departed from the more personal stories of Cambridge, Dorchester and Charlestown for the world stage. So, with his new film, he dives headfirst into the Middle East.
Based on a CIA file declassified by Bill Clinton in 1997, Argo reveals the story of exfiltration agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), who risked his life by entering a highly volatile Iran in the early 1980s to rescue six U.S. embassy workers facing public execution by the local government if they were ever discovered. Posing as a Canadian film director, Mendez proposed to meet with the ‘hostages’ and sneak them out of the country as part of his film crew.
But due to the severity of the unrest and the Iranian distrust of Westerners, it was essential firstly that a legitimate film project be devised in order for the cover to withstand the severest scrutiny. This included securing the rights to an actual script, finding a producer to fund the ‘movie,’ and then generating enough buzz around Hollywood for the whole operation to appear legit.
On the surface, Argo offers that unique blend of historical fiction and high concept that in the hands of a different type of director could have become a self-important, brash, and totally unnecessary attempt at an epic. However, despite containing many meticulously recreated set pieces – the minutiae of the historical detail is highlighted during the closing credits – and over 100 speaking roles, Affleck’s sensibilities somehow ensure the film’s grandiose nature remains firmly grounded and intimate.
Affleck is also a satisfying leading man. With his detractors continuing to question his acting abilities, Affleck’s decision to assume the lead roles in both The Town and Argo has been misconstrued by some as shameless self-promotion. His characters in these films form quiet focal points around which many other actors are allowed to shine. Like Affleck playing second fiddle to the scene-stealing Jeremy Renner in The Town, Mendez might be Argo‘s hero, but the more memorable performances emerge from the vast ensemble cast, most notably Alan Arkin as the movie-within-the-movie’s director, Lester Siegel, and Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss, Jack O’Donnell.
At times the tension in Argo is almost unbearable. This is a grand achievement in itself, but it is even more impressive when one considers that the majority of the audience is already aware of the story’s outcome before they begin watching. Add to this Affleck’s ability to deftly balance the terrifying situation unravelling in Iran with the tongue-in-cheek, satirical self-mockery of his own industry and I am ready to argue he deserves his second golden statue come the new year.