Ben Affleck’s latest run at directing dips into a 70s-flavored political thriller by way of some Ocean’s Eleven heist comedy. Taking up lead acting and directing duties again like he did on The Town, Argo is based on a stranger-than-fiction CIA mission to rescue a group of political hostages facing certain death by having them pose as a film crew. It’s bizarre tale to be sure filled with intrigue and entertainment, and Affleck never misses a beat. It initially seemed odd that the movie star would cross over to the other side of the camera and was shocking how adept he proved to be as a director. Now three films into his career, there is a certain sense of what a “Ben Affleck” movie is and Argo follows those expectations to a T. As with any filmmaker. there are pluses and minuses to his interests and thankfully like most good filmmakers the positives far outweigh the negatives. Turns out ol’ Ben might be suited to this directing thing.
The setting is Iran in 1979. Islamic militants have taken over the US embassy and five Americans escaped, hiding out at the Canadian ambassador’s home with the promise of certain death if they are found. When things get so incendiary that even the Canadian embassy is planning on escaping from the country, a crazy Hollywood heist is hatched by a bearded Ben Affleck (hey, it’s the ’70s). Affleck’s CIA extraction specialist calls up his Hollywood make up artist buddy (John Goodman) who brings in an eccentric producer (Alan Arkin) and together they create a fictional sci-fi production in LA called (you guessed it) Argo. Affleck then heads out to Iran to assign the embassy targets phony Hollywood gigs and the con is set in motion.
The structure of the movie is very much one of a heist thriller, which Affleck already proved he could handle with ease in The Town. Surprisingly (given how somber his previous directorial efforts have been), the best material in Argo is set in Los Angeles and plays out almost like a satirical Hollywood comedy like The Player. Goodman and Arkin make for a hysterical team of schemers in a gentle satire of the art of Hollywood bullshit. Affleck also shares some great scenes with Bryan Cranston as his inevitably stressed superior whose scenes alter from buddy comedy banter to screaming matches through white knuckle suspense. The sequences in Iran almost feel like they are from another movie, shot in the handheld realist thriller style founded in The Battle of Algiers. Of course it’s entirely appropriate that those scenes feel different and Affleck does a good job of bouncing between the tones without inducing too much whiplash in the audience.
When the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, there was a big stink made about gently fudging some facts. To me, that seems irrelevant. This movie isn’t supposed to be a pure history lesson. While Affleck is a talented director, he ultimately makes entertainment. Granted it’s intelligent entertainment with a purpose, which is fantastic. But, movies like this don’t need to rely on a painfully strict adherence to fact. As long as the important beats are followed and the real world subjects are honored, filmmakers should have the freedom to structure their story to suit the medium. It’s unlikely the actual escape involved a truck versus airplane chase, but that also makes the climax of Affleck’s movie all the more exciting, so I’ll gladly take it.
Ultimately, Argo is probably Affleck’s weakest film as a director, which is more of a testament to how good those previous efforts were than anything else. Despite the basis in fact and the tragic subject matter, the movie somehow feels a little lighter and less substantial than his previous crime dramas. It’s still a perfectly enjoyable film, but all the nods to great ’70s film-making (including the classic Warner Brothers logo from that decade at the start) only serve to underline the fact that it is somewhat insubstantial. This is an entertainment-driven version of history and there’s nothing wrong with that. Hollywood entertainment that even attempts to deal with this sort of subject matter doesn’t really exist anymore and good for Affleck for taking a risk to bring that back. Argo is certainly not as marketable as his previous efforts, but sticking his name on the poster will get butts in seats and god-willing other directors might be able to take on this sort of material more regularly. It will be interesting to see what Affleck decides to do next as a filmmaker and nice to know that not all actors segue into directing out of ego. Some of them actually have storytelling chops worthy of the exposure.
Strong performances from the entire cast. A nice balance of thrills n' laughs. Clever Hollywood mockery. Intense suspense. It's an admirable attempt at crafting intelligent entertainment.
The material at times feels a bit lightweight given the real world subject matter, but thankfully not in a way that trivializes the material.