Movie Review: With “Argo,” Ben Affleck Seals the Deal

Yes, Ben Affleck took some liberties in Argo for the sake of the dramatic arc and a kickass, intense finale. But mostly, the story is so bizarre that it hardly needed enhancement.

Argo directed by Ben Affleck. At cinemas throughout New England.

By Glenn Rifkin

Director/actor Ben Affleck in ARGO.

When Ben Affleck was being pummeled by critics several years ago for starring in a string of stinkers such as Gigli and Pearl Harbor, the feeling was that his Hollywood career had turned south, in the opposite direction of his Good Will Hunting buddy and co-Oscar winner Matt Damon. Damon’s star was hurtling skyward, and Affleck was getting laughed out of town. Damon had the gravitas of a fine actor and movie star. Affleck lacked serious acting chops, and his career seemed destined for a TV sitcom (not that there’s anything wrong with a good sitcom).

But a funny thing happened on the way to the trash heap: Affleck morphed into Clint Eastwood, another formerly typecast actor who turned to directing to resurrect his career. Eastwood, before he began chatting with empty chairs, had reached Hollywood’s most revered pantheon of actor/directors with A-Level talent. Oscars and a river of plaudits for not only his directing but for his acting skills flowed his way, and he became Hollywood royalty.

Now it’s Affleck’s turn.

With Gone, Baby, Gone in 2007 and The Town in 2010, Affleck made a striking directorial debut, did the star turn in the latter film, and won rave reviews for his directing prowess. Maybe, the feeling went, we had judged Affleck a bit too soon and there was a lot more substance there than we had thought.

With the release of Argo, the thriller based on the true story of the rescue of six American diplomatic workers from Tehran in January, 1980, Affleck has apparently sealed the deal. The movie is already the must-see film of the season, and a Best Picture nomination almost certainly lies in its future. Don’t be surprised to see Affleck haul in the Oscar for Best Director either.

In Argo, Affleck expertly crafts a taut drama by allowing the story to unfold at a breakneck pace but without the burden of unnecessary back stories that so often muddle rather than enhance the tension in these kinds of thrillers. In Affleck’s deft hands, the tension builds swiftly and never lets up. It is akin to watching Homeland, the nail-biting Showtime television series about counter-terrorism. In Argo‘s case, the film’s appeal is further enhanced by the simple fact that you couldn’t make this stuff up because nobody would believe it. Better to not mess with the power of truth. Yes, Affleck took some liberties here for the sake of the dramatic arc and a kickass, intense finale. But mostly, the story is so bizarre that it hardly needed enhancement.

When the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was overrun by an angry mob of militant, Iranian students and revolutionaries in November, 1979, 52 American embassy workers were taken hostage for what would become a 444-day ordeal. Demanding the return of the recently deposed Shah from the U.S., where he was being treated for terminal cancer, the Iranians, led by the savage Revolutionary Guards, were out for blood, egged on by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic cleric and political leader who had returned from exile as the Iranian revolution began.

When the embassy was stormed, six Americans escaped through a side door and eventually found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Kenneth D. Taylor. As the hostage crisis deepened into early 1980, these six escapees faced grave danger once the Iranians became aware that they were missing from the larger group. The CIA desperately sought a rescue plan, but given the rage on the streets of Tehran, the options were limited.

A CIA agent named Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, can’t believe that the only proposed rescue plan is to smuggle the Americans across the border into Turkey on bicycles. Mendez becomes determined to hatch a better option. What if he creates a phony movie project, enters Tehran as a Canadian film producer, connects with the six Americans at the ambassador’s home, and turns them into a team of location scouts for the film? Armed with Canadian identification and passports, the six Americans could then leave with Mendez on a commercial flight from Tehran’s airport and the Iranians would be none the wiser. Sound absurd? Everyone who listens to Mendez thinks so. And yet, the plan is so audacious that it just might work. As Mendez’ boss, Jack O’Donnell (a terrific Bryan Cranston) tells an incredulous Secretary of State, “This is the best bad idea we have sir.”

But in order to make it credible, Mendez must concoct a studio to produce the movie and a script for a film. He flies to LA and connects with John Chambers, an Oscar-winning makeup specialist, who introduces him to aging producer Lester Siegel, who has the pull to set up a phony studio literally overnight. John Goodman as Chambers and Alan Arkin as Siegel bring the perfect Hollywood panache to the project (and share the best lines in the film). “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” Siegel boasts.

John Goodman, Alan Arkin, and Ben Affleck having a toast in ARGO.

Mendez chooses a script entitled “Argo,” a sci-fi action film, ala Star Wars, that is set in an exotic locale not unlike Iran. The title refers to the ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts in their search for the Golden Fleece of Greek mythology. The symbolism is not lost on Mendez, and despite more plausibility issues than an Ed Wood film, the plan proceeds.

Though history has already confirmed the outcome, the true story of Argo was classified by the CIA until 1997. Thus, most filmgoers don’t know the dramatic details and giving away the edge-of-your-seat suspense would undermine the impact of this fine film. One can read Mendez’s own story in his new book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History. For those of us old enough to vividly remember the Iranian Hostage Crisis, replete with the yellow ribbons tied to old oak trees and the demise of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, what is most remarkable is that we didn’t know anything about this. And it took a 2007 Wired magazine article to draw the interest of producer George Clooney to the project.

Suffice it to say that there are fine performances by not only Arkin, who seems to just get better with age, Goodman, and Cranston, but a large cast of unknowns who carry the drama forward. What is most notable is Affleck’s subtle directorial touch, a wise sense of less is more and a willingness to avoid the usual traps that spawn the usual clichés. Affleck creates that claustrophobic sense of doom closing in around this star-crossed group with a perfectly edited mix of authentic footage and gritty original scenes. Mendez is portrayed as a 30-something CIA lifer, estranged from his wife and child, married to his job, but sympathetic without being cloying. He is all-in on this mission. If it fails, he will likely be tortured and executed. He is confident but fear etches the corners of his eyes and mouth. During the film’s breath-taking final 15 minutes, there is a heightened realism to the sequence of events that will leave audience members drained, anxious, and in need of a stiff drink. It will also leave them eager to see Affleck’s next film.

Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for nearly 30 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for The Arts Fuse. His new book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire was recently published by McGraw-Hill.

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