Directed by: Ben Affleck || Produced by: Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney
Written by: Chris Terrio || Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Kyle Chandler
Music by: Alexandre Desplat || Cinematography by: Rodrigo Prieto || Editing by: Willam Goldenberg || Country: United States || Language: English, Persian
Running Time: 120 minutes
What a long way we’ve come, Mr. Affleck. Over a decade ago, you were mostly known for starring in craptacular films like Armageddon (1998), Pearl Harbor (2001), Daredevil (2003), The Sum of All Fears (2002), and Paycheck (2003) — and now, look how circumstances have changed. I guess the wait can be blamed partially on us for not paying more attention to his talents outside acting, which were implied long ago with his writing of Good Will Hunting (1997), for which he and Matt Damon won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. That should’ve been a sign that his strengths were behind the camera, not in front of it. I suppose all is “forgiven” in light of how he’s delivered three good directorial efforts in a row with Gone Baby Gone (2007, director, producer, writer), The Town (2010, director, writer), and now as the director and co-producer of the Best Picture-winning Argo. Hell, we can even forget Pearl Harbor in light of all that.
Is Argo really the “best” movie of the year? I would say, “Of course not,” given how I scored several films higher than it from the Best Picture nominees-list alone, but who cares? At least this year the star of the Oscars was in color and had sound.
The story itself follows the dramatized event of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Right from the start, I could tell this was going to be a quality film based on the storyboard-style intro. The opening, itself a reference to the fake storyboard panels later used as part of the exfiltration mission, establishes tone and setting perfectly within its Middle Eastern political conflict. The introduction then plunges into angry, violent mobs of Iranian citizens outside the Iranian US Embassy, featuring aggressive “Death to America” chants (I assume), waving protest signs, burning American flags, someone stabbing what looks like a puppet of Uncle Sam, and a bunch of other pleasant family activities.
Fear and aggression are rife throughout Argo, in no instance more cinematic than this introduction. The swarming of the angry mob that overtakes the embassy within minutes is oddly reminiscent of a zombie film (as zombies are in essence metaphors for the mindless mob). Argo’s emotional intensity, mob set-pieces, and powerful opening are perhaps its greatest strengths.
From then on, the film is divided into two parts: The “Hollywood Option” scheme, which develops into a full-fledged mission to extract six escapees who managed to sneak out of the US embassy during the chaos, and Affleck’s protagonist’s time in Iran exfiltrating said embassy staff out of Tehran. The focus on Affleck is a smart decision, as it makes the story a personal one and keeps the film from sprawling into too wide of a sociopolitical scope. The film establishes that Affleck’s Tony Mendez has a rocky relationship with his wife and a 10 year-old, and therefore has much to lose other than his life if the mission goes wrong. His interactions with his CIA coworkers, his Hollywood allies, and especially the embassy refugees add necessary depth to his character, and confirm that he is indeed a likable guy. Affleck doesn’t give much more than an acceptable, average performance on screen, but his character works well enough for the movie as a whole to succeed.
The majority of Affleck’s talents work behind the camera, where he does a great job choreographing the political chaos and shooting the tense scenarios so that they feel dangerous. Chris Terrio’s adapted screenplay plots the action effectively, making historical notes but also taking liberties where appropriate to improve the dramatic story. A few obviously faked dilemmas creep up, but they are few and far between. Altogether, the film is a great mix of solid writing and smart camerawork that builds to a dramatic finale.
The supporting cast is strong, including the likes of Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman. I’ve noticed much discussion regarding the lack of development of the hostages, but I would argue the main focus of the story is on Affleck’s Mendez, as well as the CIA and Hollywood staff as a whole. The escapees, who are minor characters in the story, are developed enough to make you empathize with them and maintain tension throughout their ordeal.
The best part of the film is the exfiltration sequence, where Affleck and company have to navigate the tight security of the Iranian airport, including the watchful eye of the Iranian revolutionary guard. The climax to this sequence works flawlessly, and the shots of Iranian police vehicles racing to catch the group’s escaping plane make for great drama.
Much has been made concerning the historical inaccuracies of this film, with the New Zealand House of Representatives going so far as to censure Affleck in response to their embassy’s portrayal in the film (which is to say, a brief, off-handed mention in one sentence). I feel these expectations that film and other arts must depict historical events 100% accurately are immature and petty. I’ve read over these alleged historical inaccuracies and, just as I anticipated, most of the changes made by Terrio and Affleck allowed for a better narrative. There are more than enough anti-American films out there to “counterbalance” this very American story, and all those films are good or bad not because of their portrayals of the USA — or of history itself — but because they are good or bad films. The same standard applies here.
All in all, Argo is another great directorial effort by Ben Affleck. I’m glad he was recognized by the Academy, even if I don’t think Argo was the “best” movie of 2012; hopefully, Affleck’s success with Argo will further encourage him to continue directing movies, as he’s three for three so far. He clearly has a knack for political dramas, crime narratives, and portraying historical phenomena to great cinematic effect. Who knows? Maybe one day he might become a great actor if his filmmaking skills continue to evolve…
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Terrio writes a great script that starts off with a bang, and Affleck catches all its action-packed drama with his great camerawork from the opening mob-scene to the intense final escape. And you thought trying to get through customs at your local airport was hard…
? If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.