Ben Affleck is a man of many talents. In addition to his acting, he’s won an Oscar for screenwriting, produced and has mounted two critically-acclaimed directorial attempts in “Gone Baby Gone” (2007) and “The Town” (2010). But with the historical thriller “Argo”, Affleck cements his status as a talented director.
Set against the backdrop of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, “Argo” is much more than a history lesson. It’s fast, surprisingly funny and legitimately thrilling. And it’s easily Affleck’s best movie yet.
In a terrifying opening scene, Affleck shows the taking of the American embassy in Tehran by a swarm of angry Iranian protesters, establishing both the intensity of the Iranians’ anti-American sentiment and the gravity of the American ambassadors’ situation. In the midst of the chaos, six embassy workers escape inconspicuously and find refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house. “Argo” tells the little-known true story of the CIA’s attempted rescue of these Americans.
Affleck casts himself in the leading role as CIA extraction specialist Tony Mendez, who devises
a hair-brained scheme to extract the six from Tehran under the guise of a Canadian film crew on a location scout. In order for his plan to work, Tony has to make his movie legitimate. To this end, he flies to Los Angeles, where he and a couple of Hollywood insiders (John Goodman and Alan Arkin) attempt to sell the town on a fake sci-fi movie, “Argo”.
The first half of “Argo” presents an interesting clash of cultures as Hollywood goes covert. Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio play up the humor of the scenario, with Goodman and Arkin delivering witty lines that are often laugh-out-loud funny. The humorous, light scenes in Hollywood are broken up by scenes of the grim situation in Tehran, which serve to remind us that “Argo” is no comedy. In one particularly dramatic juxtaposition, Affleck cuts back and forth between a press conference for the movie and tense scenes from Iran which indicate that time is running out.
Once his plan is greenlit, Tony flies into Iran to put it into action, and “Argo” casts aside frivolity and humor for intensity and drama.
Affleck handles Tony’s introduction to Iran well, skillfully highlighting the immediate cultural differences and establishing the hostile climate in Tehran. In a series of shots, Affleck shows Iranians eating KFC, followed by a truck carrying armed militants and a man publicly hanged from a crane in broad daylight, symbolizing the Westernization of Iran and the subsequent resistance of its people to it. Affleck’s handling of Tony’s first drive into Iran sets the stakes high, and the rest of the movie carries a nerve-wracking intensity.
The second half of “Argo” was as suspenseful and thrilling as any movie I’ve seen recently. From the moment Tony lands in Tehran to the very end of his stay, it’s never clear that his plan will work. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that I was actually at the edge of my seat, which is impressive considering I was sitting in one of Ward Parkway’s luxury recliners.
As good as “Argo” is cinematically, it works just as well as a history lesson. I went in knowing next to nothing about the Iranian hostage crisis, and I came out feeling like I have a pretty good understanding of it. Affleck and Terrio do a great job educating their audience on the situation, and it pays off. With a better understanding of the hostage crisis and the reasons behind it, I was able to appreciate the seriousness of Tony’s predicament. Affleck and Terrio take the time to establish the parameters of the time period, and as a result the movie becomes more gripping and tense.