Six years ago, I never would've imagined I would utter "I'm really looking forward to the new Ben Affleck film". But after directing "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town", I found myself uttering those very words after watching the trailer for "Argo", his newest film. Each of these films demonstrates his skill and craftsmanship in creating films that are emotional and intensely watchable. The side benefit is that he has also acted in two of these films, turning in some of his best work as an actor as well. It almost seems as thought each is making the other side of his talents better.
In 1979, just as the Iranian protesters storm the gates at the American Embassy, six American workers manage to escape and they find refuge at the Canadian Ambassador's residence. The CIA quickly learns of the escape and tries to come up with a plan to get them out of the hostile country. Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) calls in Tony Mendez (Affleck) to help them out and throw some ideas around. Tony stares at the group incredulously as someone suggests they send in bikes and maps, another suggests they pose as child aid workers and shows a picture of a starving child in Africa. Tony comes up with the idea to have them pose as a Canadian film crew scouting sights for a new sci-fi film. He gets the greenlight to go ahead and contacts John Chambers (John Goodman), a make-up artist who has helped the CIA in the past. He takes Tony to Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a producer who is trying to stay relevant in a younger Hollywood. The fake movie they will make is called "Argo".
Based on a true story, "Argo" is a nifty piece of filmmaking. If someone had just come up with this idea, you probably wouldn't last ten minutes in the film because the story would seem too implausible. But because it is 'based on a true story', your interest is heightened and the incredulity of the events carries you along. This only works to a certain extent. The film has to be well-made in order for it to work for two hours. And "Argo" is very well-made.
Affleck has accomplished a fairly remarkable feat as an actor. Considered a joke for a while, and appearing in one bomb after the other, he started to do really good work in really good films. "Hollywoodland" heralded the beginning of a renaissance of sorts for the actor. A few years later, he directed his first film "Gone Baby Gone". It seems like he turned on a switch and suddenly became a good actor and a good director in one fell swoop. I think his ability to use his talents as a director also helped him to mature as an actor. He is now doing some of his best work as both. Sure, he still seems drawn to the big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, iffy projects that could just as easily be bad, but these seem to be the exception to the norm.
In "Argo", Affleck's major accomplishment is that he shows restraint. The story is so far out of left field, it naturally captures your attention and Affleck tells it in a straight forward way, eschewing weird and unusual camera angles of filmmaking tricks, both of which might hamper a less-talented filmmaker's efforts. As the film draws to its suspenseful climax, he doesn't need to add any cinematic flourishes because we are already on the edge of our seats.
He has assembled a fine collection of actors to bring the story to life. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are the standouts as two grizzled Hollywood veterans who wholeheartedly agree to help and make the fake film. Their characters also serve as comic relief, offering many memorable zingers about Hollywood and the people who make films for a living. They also help to keep us clued in to how ludicrous the plan is. If it works, it will be a miracle.
Bryan Cranston is good as O'Donnell, the CIA official who brings Tony into the fold. If Goodman and Arkin are the comic relief, Cranston is around to provide the gravitas. When the plan experiences hiccups, he stares at the camera with a pained expression. This may sound like a rudimentary, even unnecessary addition to the film. But Cranston's performance does two things; it provides a nice counterpoint to Goodman and Arkin and helps us stay focused on the seriousness of the situation.
Tate Donavan, Clea Duvall and Victor Garber play some of the people, Americans and Canadians, stuck in Iran. It is interesting to watch their characters as they deal with the always present threat of danger. Throughout the film, the narrative shifts back to them to give us a sort of update, showing us how they are dealing with the isolation of their situation. These moments also help us get to know them, which is particularly important in the final moments, as we find ourselves rooting for them, hoping they will escape to safety.
Affleck's performance as Tony Gomez, the brains behind the plan to rescue these six individuals, is understated. He plays the character without a lot of emotion and there are a lot of shots of Affleck listening to and watching other things happen. This makes him our conduit to the story. And this concept works really well.
Normally, we might see one of the six workers as our guide into this story, allowing us to feel what the prisoners are feeling, making us feel their pain, their imprisonment, feel everything they are experiencing. It might seem odd for Affleck's character to serve this purpose, but because he does, it seems to intensify the feelings the individual characters are experiencing. We spend some time with them, watching them deal with everything. But when Gomez arrives, there is a marked change. They feel some hope and because of this, the stakes have also gone up exponentially. This also explains why Gomez is rather stoic throughout. If he shows any emotion, the six people he is trying to save will instantly pick up on this and amplify it ten-fold causing all sorts of problems.
Both Affleck the actor and Affleck the director recognize the best way to tell this incredibly gripping story is to let it unfold naturally. This is the first sign of the actor and director's maturity. So many others would try to fool around, add flourishes, dramatic touches, etc. Because he doesn't, Affleck reveals the natural drama and excitement in the story.
It is a remarkably accomplished film all around.