If you were to ask anyone six years ago what Ben Affleck might be like as a director, they’d probably answer, "rubbish". If you were to then tell them that he was, in fact, a terrific director, they’d probably laugh in your face. Then Affleck directed 'Gone Baby Gone' (2007), his critically acclaimed debut, and people began to take notice. Maybe this teen heartthrob had directing chops no-one knew about? With his second feature, 'The Town' (2010), Affleck asserted himself as one of the most dynamic filmmakers working today, and eyes were keenly fixed on what he would do next. Emerging as a minor event film for 2012 is his third feature, 'Argo', an historical thriller that sees him playing on a much bigger canvas than before, and truly putting his skills to the test.
At the height of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is stormed and the employees taken hostage. During the chaos, six staff escape and begin hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador, unbeknown to the Iranian forces. If they are found, there is no doubt they will be tortured and put to death. The U.S. government is desperate to get them out, but with the country a war zone and Americans targeted as the enemy, no solution seems plausible... until CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with something so implausible it might just work. With the help of legendary make-up artist Jon Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), he creates ‘Argo’, a fake science fiction movie. He plans to go into Iran as a Canadian film crew, and sneak the six staff members out as members of the crew. If they succeed, it will be a huge achievement. If they get caught, it could be catastrophic.
From the offset, Affleck makes all the right choices. Rather than opening the film up to deal with the wider political implications of the Iranian Revolution, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio wisely choose to pitch the film as a biting thriller. The interest for the audience here is the rescue attempt, and Affleck does the right thing by making this the central focus of the film. Details of the rescue aren’t common knowledge, the case only being declassified in 1997, so the threat of failure is always a possibility, and every moment of tension is milked for all it is worth. The final half hour, the escape attempt itself, is expert filmmaking, perfectly paced for maximum effect. Affleck handles the wider canvas brilliantly, giving the film a terrific dynamism. Cinematographer Rodgrigo Prieto sits the film comfortably between hand-held documentary style (executed to great effect in the film's opening sequence), and something more composed and traditional. Every member of the creative team have studied 70s American cinema to the smallest detail, and the film sings with all the unusual edits and zooms that categorise films of that era. Sharon Seymour’s production design is dense and detailed, and editor William Goldenberg keeps the film moving at a cracking pace. This is an incredibly accomplished film from an incredibly accomplished team of artists, and with Affleck at the helm, they have produced one of the more impressive historical films we have seen in a while.
This is an example of an actor-director with an inherent understanding of the importance of the film as opposed to demonstrating their skills as an actor.
The cast is just as strong, filled to the brim with recognisable and impressive actors. Affleck gives one of his best performances as Mendez, in no way dominating the film. This is an example of an actor-director with an inherent understanding of the importance of the film as opposed to demonstrating their skills as an actor. His performance is understated and grounded, instantly making Mendez an arresting protagonist and the only man likely to pull off this crazy idea. Goodman and Arkin are absolutely terrific as Chambers and Siegel, the old Hollywood charm in the midst of the political turmoil. Affleck wisely allows them to use their comic skills to great effect, and every scene with them shines. The cast is also filled out by Bryan Cranstron, wonderfully taking on Mendez’s supervisor Jack O’Donnell. There are so many more names to mention from this terrific ensemble cast, but by the end, you’d just be listing them all, making it one of the most impressive teams since 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' earlier this year.
One can only assume that Ben Affleck has become such an exciting filmmaker from studying and learning from the great films and filmmakers he has been surrounded by his entire career, but rather than simply being a shadow of these greats, he has emerged as a strong artist in his own right. 'Argo' is an absolutely terrific, nail-biting thriller, perfectly pitched and handsomely executed. This is old-school Hollywood filmmaking at its finest, and even after three acclaimed films, it still has the joyful surprise of coming from the most unlikely place.