Argo is the type of American film that Hollywood sorely needs right now. Currently there are only a small handful of directors, including David O. Russell, Jason Reitman, Bennett Miller, and Tony Gilroy that are championing conventional, well-made adult dramas. With Affleck’s first two films, he took on the crime genre, but with Argo I hope we can add him to the list of directors above. Now don’t get me wrong, we all know I love auteurs like Malick, the Coens, and Tarantino, as much as anyone. But in the new frontier of superhero franchises and animated 3D films, it’s nice to know that major studios will still throw a few dollars toward a down-the-middle political drama. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I’d like to think there is a constituency of film-going adults out there that appreciate being catered to every once in a while.
Set during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1980, Argo is a declassified true subplot of that larger world event, in which six of the U.S. diplomats escaped the Iranians and found shelter at the home of the Canadian Ambassador. This all takes place in the first scene of the film, and Affleck takes great care to make sure this movie starts off strong. When the CIA finds out what has happened to the six Americans, operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) devises a plan to pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting for locations in Iran, in order to retrieve the Americans. This makes for an entertaining second act (Mendez engaging the help of Hollywood in order to make the film seem legitimate) and an intense third act (retrieving the Americans).
The ensemble acting is probably the film’s best aspect. Between all of the hostages, the various CIA and State Department employees, and the Hollywood producers, actors, etc. involved, this was a large cast to say the least. The scenes with crowded rooms of political figures, intelligence operatives, or American diplomats had exactly the same smart, fast-talking aura of political films from the time period in which the film is set.
Alan Arkin and John Goodman get to ham it up as a big-time Tinseltown producer and makeup artist, respectively, and their performances are easily the best in the film. Ben Affleck is serviceable, as he was in The Town, but I wouldn’t say it was a good performance. I wouldn’t mind if he cast himself in a supporting role next go-around, as he has always been much better there than as a leading man throughout his acting career.
Where he does excel, however, is behind the camera. The story is by no means full of “big” moments, and Affleck does not go out of his way to add any unnecessary bravado. Rather, the film registers its impact in more organic ways. It is extremely intense in the simplest ways—conversations in which Mendez must sell the legitimacy of the fake film to foreign officials is an arm-rest clutching tightrope act; ditto a scene where Mendez drives a VW bus through a rabid Iranian crowd in the streets of Tehran. The final act of making it through customs under fake identities is similarly gripping, as well.
A great third effort for Affleck, and I think we can now say has made the transition from merely "promising" to someone in his directorial prime. 8.5/10.