Affleck scores career best with ‘Argo’
Ben Affleck directs and stars as Tony Mendez "Argo."
Updated: October 12, 2012 8:32AM
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that gets pretty much everything right — and “Argo” is one of them. Combining real-life espionage drama with a side-order of Hollywood satire, it’s never less than fascinating and it’s also extremely suspenseful and surprisingly funny. It’ll be much more surprising if “Argo” isn’t nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and it isn’t at all unlikely that it could win.
That shouldn’t shock anyone who’s been watching actor Ben Affleck prove himself as a director the past five years, starting out strong with the 2007 kidnapping drama “Gone Baby Gone,” then topping himself two years ago with the bank-robbery thriller “The Town.” Both of those films were impressive, but “Argo” is something special. It deftly recounts the little-known, true story of a CIA operative who flew into Iran in early 1980 shortly after 52 Americans were taken as hostages from the U.S. embassy to rescue six who had managed to slip away to the Canadian embassy.
Affleck also turns in an effective, low-key performance as Tony Mendez, a former CIA exfiltration specialist — someone who sneaks people out of dangerous situations as opposed to sneaking them in. The laughs start when Mendez is summoned as a consultant to a State Department strategy session for rescuing the six escapees before they are discovered and killed. After hearing about a plan to get them out by providing them with bicycles and maps to the border, Mendez is confident he can come up with a better bad idea. And he does, after seeing a bit of “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” on TV. He will fly into the country posing as a Canadian film producer scouting desert locations for a sci-fi epic, and fly out again with the Americans posing as members of his film crew.
Mendez knows he’s going to have to make his phony movie look as real as possible, so he visits real-life, Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman, excellent) for some assistance in setting up all the trappings of a real production. Screenwriter Chris Terrio invents an old-school producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin at his deadpan wise-guy best) to bring the Hollywood humor to life. With choice lines such as “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit” and “You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the Writers Guild of America,” Arkin makes the Tinseltown satire sound 100 percent credible while also displaying a subtle, but obvious commitment to the seriousness of what they are doing.
That serious intent (always underscored by Affleck’s quiet, no-nonsense performance) never wavers in “Argo.” Even while we’re involved in the workaday details of setting up the mission, TV coverage of the hostage crisis subtly reminds us that lives at stake. Occasional cutaways to Iran’s security forces, first discovering that Americans are missing then reconstructing their photos from shredded documents, make it clear that time is running out.
The remarkable thing is that Affleck manages to weave the humor, the behind-the-scenes details of espionage and the constant undercurrent of tension into a seamless whole — none of the film’s dramatic components ever serving as a distraction from the others. Until the final act, that is, when “Argo” is focused entirely on ever-escalating suspense, as Mendez attempts to leave the country with his six escapees, just one or two steps ahead of the pursuing Revolutionary Guard. Is that the way the escape really happened including a nail-biting climactic chase at the end? Somehow, that seems a little doubtful, but what’s wrong with that? Clearly, Affleck wanted to tell his story with as much realism and integrity as possible, while still making it work as thrilling, mainstream entertainment. And he’s done so, in a way that’s entirely satisfying on all counts.
Isn’t it nice when a plan works out? It seems fairly certain that the people Mendez rescued would whole-heartedly agree.