Despite having a screenwriting Oscar for 1997's Good Will Hunting, not much more than half a decade ago Ben Affleck was a would-be blockbuster star increasingly better known for his high-wattage celebrity romances than for his wobbly film work.
This made the career reinvention of Affleck's directorial debut, 2007's Gone Baby Gone, such a surprise. Gone Baby Gone was a Boston-set crime thriller with documentary texture and emotional heft. Affleck, who co-wrote, stayed behind the camera, casting his younger brother Casey in the lead. His follow-up, 2010's The Town, was a turn toward the conventional. Another Boston-set crime flick, this one had more action, more gunfire, and Affleck in the lead but was still a cut above the norm for current Hollywood shoot-'em-ups. It was enough to confirm that Gone Baby Gone was no fluke, but it still suggested limits.
Affleck — who doesn't have a screenwriting credit this time — shatters those limits with Argo, his ambitious new film that leaves Boston and crime cinema behind. Based on a wild but true story of a CIA-led "exfiltration" — or extraction — mission in Iran that happened in 1980 but was classified until 1997, this tense, entertaining film superbly balances comedic and thriller elements while deploying the best ensemble cast on the big screen this year.
At the head of the cast is Affleck himself, as CIA agent Tony Mendez, an exfiltration specialist called to a joint agency/State Department meeting two months after the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis, where he learns that there are six American diplomats who escaped to the home of the Canadian ambassador when the U.S. embassy was overrun and that have been hiding there ever since. Now,, the U.S. is looking for a way to rescue them without discovery.
Mendez councils his skeptical superiors that "ex-fils are like abortions. You don't want to need one, but when you do, you don't want to do it yourself."
Dismissing more conventional State Department plans as too easily detected, Mendez hatches a plot to extract the Americans by posing them as a Canadian film crew in Tehran scouting for a science-fiction film. "There are only bad options. It's about picking the best one," Mendez insists. "It's the best bad idea we've got," says Mendez's agency boss, played by Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston.
Establishing a paper trail for the fake film — the titular Argo — brings a couple of Hollywood vets, a make-up artist (John Goodman) and past-his-prime producer (Alan Arkin) into the mix and allows for truly funny but light satire on the film business at the dawn of the Star Wars-obsessed blockbuster age. This period detail extends throughout the rich set and costume design and sharp use of news footage from the time. Affleck was 8 when the Iranian hostage crisis occurred, the same age as his on-screen son here, and his feel for the period at times conveys the intensity of childhood memory.
The quality of the film's cast extends well beyond major supporting performers or the hiding diplomats themselves, who are familiar faces but less familiar names (Clea Duvall, Tate Donovan). Argo is packed with crisp contributions from supporting or character actors even in the smallest of roles — Richard Kind! Philip Baker Hall! And the film's music cues arrive with nearly as much welcome surprise, making nice use of Bob Dylan's "Hurricane," Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away," and, especially, a diagetic deployment of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" at a key moment.
These flourishes add spice, but Argo gets the meat right too, starting with a pre-credit primer on Iranian history that deftly and sensitively lays a foundation for the hostage crisis with a visual strategy that foreshadows the film's peculiar plot. The opening siege on the embassy, with American diplomats and military personnel working together feverishly to protect national interests and themselves, is haltingly tense, made more so by the rhyming with recent events at U.S. embassies.
If there's a flaw here, it might be that the Iranians are mostly reduced to background others, with one housekeeper for the Canadian ambassador asked to do too much heavy lifting on this front. But this is a minor issue. Overall, Argo has an intelligence and sensitivity to the political realities of its period and its historical resonances beyond what we could expect from most mainstream entertainments.
If Affleck's first two films established him as a real director, Argo vaults him into a major one.
Opening Friday, October 12th, multiple locations