Anthony Lane writes, in his review of Argo in The New Yorker, “We were wrong about Ben Affleck.” This makes me think, where did Ben Affleck get his terrible reputation? Was it being thrown over by Jennifer Lopez? Was it not being as good an actor as Matt Damon (few are)? Or is it just his natural, handsome but goofy persona?
In any event, after his third film, each of which has been better than the last, Affleck can’t be laughed at any more. Argo is a first-rate entertainment, probably the picture to beat for the Oscar. It won’t be my favorite of the year (it doesn’t supplant Moonrise Kingdom), but it’s a sure crowd pleaser that manages to be both suspenseful and funny.
After the saturation of this film in the media, I don’t want to waste too much space on a summation. The film begins crisply with the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, when students under the new regime demanded the return of the Shah for war crimes. For those of us old enough, this was the big news event of the time, but I never knew that six staffers made it out a back entrance and hid out in the Canadian ambassador’s house for well over two months. The State department worked on solutions to get them out, dumbly coming up with bicycles. A CIA agent (Affleck) specializing in “exfiltation” is brought in. While watching one of the Planet of the Apes movies he comes up with the idea of flying the “house guests” out as a Canadian film crew on a scouting location.
This film could never succeed as fiction–it’s too implausible. But it is true (up to a point). Affleck contacts a Hollywood makeup artist who he was worked with before on disguises (a very good John Goodman, who plays the real John Chambers, who won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes) advises him. They go to a producer (Alan Arkin), who takes on the challenge, even going so far as to get press coverage to convince the world that a science fiction film called Argo is going to be made.
This first part of the film is the better half. Affleck, along with his superior (a flustered Bryan Cranston), work up the chain of the command, dealing with Hamilton Jordan, the Chief of Staff (Kyle Chandler) and then the director of the CIA and the Secretary of State (when entering their office, Cranston tells Affleck it will be like talking to the two old guys in the balcony on The Muppet Show). Better than that are the scenes with Arkin and Goodman, as the world of Hollywood and government clash like plaids and stripes. Arkin gives the film an incredible life, as almost every line out of his mouth is gold.
After Affleck files to Tehran and encounters the house guests, the movie settles into a more familiar escape film. The guests aren’t given much to do except look worried. The only one who really comes across with any discernible personality is Scooter McNair, as the one guy who doesn’t like the idea. But the ambassador (Victor Garber), risking his own neck, is going to have to close the embassy, so it’s either Affleck or nothing.
The film ends with white-knuckled, last-second rescues that cheapen the film a little, and as I understand it, deviate from the truth. It’s exciting and well done, but after the fresh take in the first half, it’s a bit of a let down. Affleck, though, shows a sure hand here and, as with The Town, he knows how to create suspense.
He also gives the film a ’70s look, from the vintage Warner Brothers logo during the opening credits to Rodrigo Prieto’s slightly faded, Quinn Martin Production look in the photography. There are lots of little touches, like the crumbled Hollywood sign, the use of Star Wars figures, the hits on the soundtrack that don’t overwhelm the story, and the porn-star mustaches that give the film an authentic look. It’s also a jolt to see a film that is set before the era of the mobile phone. One key scene would be rendered moot if only they had been invented.
I think the greatest credit should go to the scriptwriter, Chris Terrio, who has crafted excellent dialogue that has the snap of screwball comedy and the jargon-filled lexicon of bureaucracy. This script should be a cinch for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.
I think the best thing about Affleck’s burgeoning career is that all three of his movies are for adults. He hasn’t yet yielded to temptation to direct a comic book adaptation or a gross-out comedy. His next film will be another adaptation of a Dennis Lehane book, the source of his first film, Gone, Baby, Gone. Based on this ever-improving track record, I’ll be there.
My grade for Argo: A-.