Guest Movie Review: Argo
What is Ben Affleck when not in Boston? Historically the actor/director has had his best success when focusing on the subject of his hometown, beginning with the cannon shot to stardom that was his Best Original Screenplay win for Good Will Hunting (with Matt Damon). Since that moment, Affleck’s been quite active in Hollywood, playing Shakespearean actors, space drillers, fallen angels, WWII soldiers, petty mafia thugs, and two different superheroes. Yet none of these performances has been as natural as chumming it up with his best buddy Damon in Bean Town. In the early 2000’s, not long after his career ascent, Affleck’s star was fading fast. This was punctuated by six Golden Raspberry nominations for his acting – he managed to “win” three for his roles in Daredevil, Gigli and Paycheck. Adding insult to injury, his public life was on the covers of all the tabloids, and his relationship to Jennifer Lopez was widely considered a joke. He was becoming more recognized for his failures than his successes, and 1997 seemed oh so far away.
But public perception of Affleck got a sudden turnaround in 2007 with the release of his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. A gritty modern-day mystery based on the book by the Dorchester-born Dennis Lehane, it received critical acclaim and managed to convince America that Affleck had found a method for career resurgence. Despite not receiving any major nominations for his work on Gone Baby Gone or his 2010 follow-up The Town, Affleck unofficially become the authority on Boston-based crime dramas, a genre that has gotten a large amount of attention since Mystic River popularized the type in cinemas.
That’s what makes Affleck’s latest outing, Argo, so intriguing; he sets the time machine for 1979 and the Iran hostage crisis, far away from Boston and its seedy, crime-laden histories. In this version of events, the CIA-led coup in 1953 that put in power the western-sympathetic Shah and cut off Iran’s attempt at democratization led to a brutal reaction that all but guaranteed that something like the hostage-taking and the rise to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini. In an unprecedented event, Iranian revolutionaries stormed the walls of the US embassy and took control, demanding that the United States surrender their deposed Shah (we had given our former ally asylum) for trial. While over sixty American citizens were kept under guard for 444 days, President Carter attempted to maintain peaceful negotiations for the hostages’ release. However, six diplomats managed to escape the embassy before its capture. They found shelter at Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor’s home. Affleck focuses on this small group’s rescue and the efforts of CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) in bringing them back to United States soil. The plan he comes up? Claim the diplomats as a Canadian film crew for a science fiction film, visiting Iran on a trip to scout locations. It was audacious, and the details were kept classified until 1997, almost two decades after the “Canadian Caper” was pulled off.
At first you might think that Argo delves a bit much into history to work as pure escapist fare. Certainly it can be difficult to separate the narrative of the film from the recent troubles we’ve had in the Middle East, from our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to our current tensions with Iran. And 1979 was not the last time a US embassy has been attacked, with the recent bombing of our Libyan embassy just the latest in a series of terror tactics. Thankfully the movie has a different enough look to distract you from modern politics. Between a lightly retro filming style, horrible fashion and god-awful hair and mustache styles, you’ll really feel as though you really are back in the seventies. The director’s methods do a lot to remind you that this is merely a look at history, not a history in the making. Though several themes he introduces are still prevalent today (pro-America pride, xenophobia, Middle Eastern tensions), Affleck does an excellent job of putting it all in the perspective for that specific time – you’ll be thinking about the troubles of the past, not the troubles of the present.
Argo is well-balanced, equal parts political thriller and Hollywood product. The first two acts of the movie – developing the escape plan and then setting it up – are extremely deliberate, thought-out sequences, logically moving the film from scene to scene in a manner that’s both complex and clear. The acting is top notch, and a support cast that includes Bryan Cranston (amazingly in his sixth major movie this year and tenth in the past two), Kyle Chandler and Chris Messina help dramatize convoluted the U.S. intelligence network is. Outside of the CIA, standouts are John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Hollywood insiders who help Tony Mendez develop his fake movie. Arkin doesn’t seem to care that his role is mere composite; as he did in Little Miss Sunshine, he provides a spark of exuberant life that is impossible to dismiss, and he gets to keep some of the best dialogue for himself. Goodman is also fantastic from scene one, playing Academy Award-winning makeup artist John Chambers (he worked on Planet of the Apes and designed Spock’s ears for Star Trek), who had been contracted with the CIA for operations before the events of Argo. Both Goodman and Arkin are stellar, and their work on the Hollywood side of things is frank and honest about the “industry of lies” that is their livelihood. Affleck even takes a shot at himself – when building cover identities for the six escapees, Mendez asks Chambers if one of them (Tate Donovan) can be taught to be a film director in one day; Chambers’ cleverly meta response is “You can train a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.” The self-effacing nature of the movie’s Hollywood side helps lighten the mood, which can certainly use some lightening now and then.
But for all the claims that Argo is “based on true events, the final act is an exciting, nerve-wracking and emotionally fulfilling finale that will cause you to break out in applause. And it didn’t happen. I’m not saying that the CIA is covering those details up, I’m saying that there’s really no logical way that the events in the film could have possibly happened in the manner in which they are presented. This is not an indictment of Affleck’s directing, nor of the screenplay by Chris Terrio; Hollywood loves this type of American success story, and it’s only natural to create an ending that fits such bombastic needs. Audiences want that distressingly slow-paced escape, with everything almost going wrong and the bad guys seemingly only a few steps behind. But while it’s a lot of fun, you might find yourself poking holes in the logic long afterward, providing really the only major flaw I found.
I would have loved to see more of the six diplomats, around whom this movie is supposed to revolve. But while the group sports some talented performers in Donovan, Clea Duvall and even Victor Garber as the heroic Canadian ambassador, they are mostly relegated to the sidelines. Only Monsters’ Scoot McNairy is given a chance to stretch from the perpetually-nervous archetype, and his excellence showcases the interest this group could have achieved. But despite this and a few minor issues (including a white man playing a Latino character), Argo is still Ben Affleck’s best-directed effort to date, and at #2 it’s one of the best movies released this year. It’s a pulse-pounding historical thriller well worth seeing, and hopefully will be remembered and recognized appropriately this awards season. Affleck wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for Gone Baby Gone because it was his first feature film. He was snubbed for The Town in deference to a glut of veteran directors at the top of their game. But with his furthest-reaching vision in Argo, he’s earned that nomination. It’s time for the rest of Hollywood to recognize what Bostonians have already come to accept and expect; that Affleck is a voice worth listening to, a talent worth rewarding.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare mayor living in Boston. He posts reviews regularly on Hello, Mr. Anderson. You know, just in case you’re interested.