It's hard to believe how dramatically Ben Affleck's career has changed in the last ten years. At the beginning of the past decade he was considered one of the worst actors in hollywood starring in such critically panned movies as 'Daredevil', 'Pearl Harbor' and 'Gigli'. It seems like somewhere along the way he decided to take the manner in his own hands and become a director (after all, he had won an Oscar for writing 'Good Will Hunting'). His first two films 'Gone Baby Gone' and 'The Town' were both big hits with critics and now his third film, 'Argo', premiered to rave reviews at the Telluride Film Festival and is already being buzzed as an Oscar front-runner. Even though I wasn't a huge fan of either 'Gone Baby Gone' or 'The Town', I have to give it to Ben Affleck. Third time seems to be the charm, as he has made one hell of a movie.
The story is based on true events taken from a CIA declassified mission that took place during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, as about 50 people were held captive at the American embassy. Six of these Americans managed to escape and found refuge at the Canadian ambassador's house. If they ever leaved the house, the Iranian rebels would most probably murder them. That's when CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes in. He comes up with a plan to take the hostages out of Iran by pretending to be a film crew scouting for exotic locations. He flies to Hollywood to team up with makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Les Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create the cover: a science fiction extravaganza called 'Argo'.
The movie's biggest triumph lies in the direction and composition. The movie starts out as a political drama depicting the high tention of the hostage situation in an amazing sequence involving the rebel storming of the US Embassy. It then shifts gears into what could be best described as a surprisingly funny satire of Hollywood movie business (and to a lesser extent American politics) to finally turn into a nail-biting thriller as the missions starts to take place on Iranian ground. It all builds up to a brilliant sequence in which all three aspects of the movie play off of each other building all the suspense necessary for the grand finale. Along with editor William Goldenberg and composer Alexandre Desplat, Ben Affleck creates a film that without any grand chase or action sequences, is the most thrilling experience I had at the movies and can only be described as an outstanding achievement in direction. Affleck had proven his chops in this department before, but this time around, there's no doubt he has what it takes to become one of the best.
My problems with Affleck's previous films were always oriented towards the story and screenplay rather than the direction. This time Affleck didn't write the film, leaving screenplay duties to Chris Terrio who definitely contributes a lot to the structure of the film and the comedy (from which Arkin and Goodman are the biggest beneficiaries). Still, I have a few minor quarrels with the script. The movie works very well as it is, but I would have liked a little more characterization for the main payers. There is a lot characters, most of them with very interesting stories to be told, but in order to keep up the tempo, the film can't really stop too much to delve into them. Our protagonist in particular gets screen-time to depict some of his personal life, but it still informs the character only partially and not in a completely satisfying manner. It leaves some of the characters a little cold, but it is also nice that the script focuses in as many as it can: a subplot involving an Iranian housemaid, for example, provides one of the film's best scenes.
In the grand scheme of things, 'Argo' is an incredibly satisfying and effective movie. In a time when the Middle East is experiencing a big political change and diplomatic relations start to shift it is important to look back both at the political actions that started the 1979 hostage crisis as well as the outside-the-box thinking and cooperation that was required to provide a solution.