If you had told me 7 years ago that Ben Affleck, the man that put the “Ben” in Beniffer and the “No, seriously, what is this crap?” in Gigli, would become one of the greatest young filmmakers in Hollywood right now, I would have personally tied down the straps on your new white jacket before they hauled you off to the loony bin.
But after proving with The Town that Gone, Baby Gone was not just the 2nd most elaborate prank ever pulled in Hollywood, Ben Affleck 2.0 is once again here to prove himself with Argo, a true story that sounds only slightly more far fetched than “…and the Golden Globe for Best Director goes to Ben Affleck” would have back in 2006.
Now you may have noticed that earlier I said “2nd most elaborate prank in Hollywood” and that’s because the top spot has to go Argo. No, not this movie, I’m talking about the fake sci-fi production the CIA setup in the late 70’s, the details of which remained classified until a few years ago. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, so let me contextualize this sucker a bit.
When the American embassy in Tehran is stormed during the Iranian revolution of 1979, more than 50 embassy workers are taken hostage in retaliation for the American government sheltering the recently deposed Shah. During the commotion though, six Americans manage to escape and make their way to the home of the Canadian Ambassador, who hides them from the roving Iranian militia.
When word reaches America of what has transpired, the CIA desperately begins looking for a means to safely extract the six before they are caught. One bad, doomed to fail idea after another is presented, like procuring bicycles for the six and having them cycle through hostile territory. In the dark. Through Winter ravaged mountains. Way to inspire confidence, CIA circa 1979.
Enter Tony Mendez (played with a quiet stoicism by Affleck himself), a man who may find himself stuck in a disaster of a personal life, but who has a great track record of getting other people out of bad situations. He’s also the man with “the best bad idea” as he describes it to his supervisor, Jack O’Donnel (played with a manic verve by Bryan Cranston, who is quickly turning into the white Samuel L Jackson, as he stars in just about every 2nd movie released).
That bad idea is this: Mendez will enter the country disguised as a Canadian film producer under the pretense of scouting for exotic locations to be used in his Star Wars-esque science-fiction epic, Argo. He will meet up with the six, who will then pretend to be part of the Canadian film crew, and they will all fly out together. The twist though, is that for Mendez to get permission to get into the country and have the “crew’s” identities stand up to inspection from Iranian officials, a real movie production will actually have to be created. To pull off the elaborate ruse, Oscar winning special effects man John Chambers (John Goodman) of Planet of the Apes fame and B movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) are roped in to create the charade.
Now while the opening 20 minutes of the film, as Affleck expertly interweaves real archival footage of the Iranian revolt along with the escape of the six, is a study in human drama, once Chambers and Siegel enter the fray the film changes gears to a straight-up Hollywood comedy. Arkin, as the boisterous, no-nonsense Siegel steals just about every scene he’s in, with Goodman’s playfully sarcastic Chambers playing his “straight man” as most of the absurdities of Hollywood filmmaking are put on full, very humourous display.
And somehow (I’m going with voodoo chicken sacrifice), Affleck not only makes what should be a jarring tonal shift work, he makes it work damn well. One minute you’re shaking with laughter in your seat, the next your backside is clawing to just the edge of it.
Affleck particularly infuses everything with a palpable tension once again once Mendez makes it into Iran and begins meeting with and prepping the six with their cover stories. A lot of this tension comes from the fact that the six (all played solidly by Tate Donavan, Clea Duvall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe and Rory Cochrane) not only don’t fully trust that Mendez’s crazy plan will work, but none of them are trained operatives, which means they are prone to a few, very unfortunately timed slip ups while trying to maintain their covers.
And if there was one minor criticism leveled at Argo though, it would be as a result of some of these calamitous moments. Not because they’re handled poorly though, no not all, but rather because it feels obvious that screenwriter Chris Terrio has included them into the story for the sake of dramatic effect. That being said though, you will probably overlook this pretty easily when the razor wire suspense is causing your sphincter to twitch like a rabbit’s nose.
That’s an especially remarkable achievement when you consider that most people who go into this movie, already know (either from the trailers or prior knowledge of the actual incident) exactly what’s going to happen in the end. But knowing the “what” though doesn’t change the fact that Affleck and Terrio make the “how” incredibly entertaining.
But while the story may require a few deviations from historical fact, there’s no denying the ridiculous attention to detail the production went through in meticulously and accurately recreating the worlds of Iran and Hollywood in 1979. Also, facial hair. They meticulously created lots of facial hair.
In the end, factual accuracy aside, Argo offers so many facets of why we love watching movies, and does it all so successfully in one single package, that it’s hard to argue with its recent win of Best Picture and Best Director at the Golden Globes, and even harder still to not recommend it to others. This Ben Affleck guy is for real.