Ben Affleck has made a transition. After two promising releases in ‘Gone Baby Gone’ and ‘The Town’, he was touted as one of the best young directors in Hollywood, he had potential. With the release of ‘Argo’, his most complete work yet, he has announced himself as one of the foremost American directors working today.
‘Argo’ is the story of a leftfield CIA operation to extract 6 American diplomats from Iran, after they had escaped the US embassy during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Affleck takes on the role of Tony Mendez, the CIA operative tasked with masterminding the rescue of the US diplomats, who are now fugitives in Iran and secretly seeking refuge at the house of a Canadian ambassador.
It is a film that is funny and gripping in equal measure. The most impressive feature of Affleck’s direction is the way he manages to mould the farcical comedy and gripping tension into a coherent whole. Even when the tone is veering towards flat-out comedy, we are never allowed to forget the seriousness of the operation, or the severity of the danger facing the diplomats holed up in Tehran. It must have been a challenge to strike the right balance, and if he hadn’t it could have been an almighty mess. He also manages to juggle his dual responsibilities well and delivers a solid if not spectacular performance in the leading role.
But for all Affleck’s good work we can’t have him taking all the credit, so here’s a mention for Production Designer Sharon Seymour for bringing the Seventies to life. With the clothing, vehicles and most importantly facial hair the attention to detail is impressive, we aren’t taken out of the seventies for a second. Bryan Cranston gives another good turn as his film career continues to flourish on the back of his astonishing performances in ‘Breaking Bad’, and John Goodman and Alan Arkin provide the comic relief as the Hollywood insiders brought in to aid the operation.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of ‘Argo’ though, is the way in which the Iranian protesters are portrayed. The film opens with a sequence which outlines the events that led to the unrest in Iran and ultimately the attack on the US embassy. Rather than presenting the Iranians as mindless terrorists, or just some motiveless ‘other’, it puts their animosity towards the US in some context, with a tone verging on apologetic. To my great relief it’s all quite even-handed, even Canada gets a little recognition…eh. The occasional scenes involving spokespersons for the protest movement presented an intelligent and articulate young woman calmly laying out their agenda, hardly the shouty and angry terrorists you could have been forgiven for expecting. In all honesty this should be something that is expected rather than applauded, but credit to Affleck for taking it seriously when others don’t.
So what’s not to like? Well, for me it ended 5 minutes too late. For all the progress made with ‘Argo’ Affleck has retained his weakness, if you can call it that, for the ‘Hollywood’ ending. In ‘The Town’ the romantic slant felt contrived and softened up what was otherwise a gripping and well-crafted piece. With ‘Argo’ the final scene is effectively played out 40 minutes in, when Tony Mendez drops into conversation that he is on a break from his marriage and that his son is living with the mother. If you’re going for that conclusion you have to do it properly, and earn an emotional reaction from the audience. One line dropped in halfway through the running time doesn’t cut it.
But hey, that’s just 5 minutes of what is otherwise a funny, seriously gripping and even-handed dramatisation of a remarkable story. Oscar worthy? I’m not so sure, but on this evidence it won’t be too much longer until we’re seeing another Affleck acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. 2003, they year of ‘Gigli’ and ‘Daredevil’, seems like a long long time ago.
Best Moment: Bryan Cranston just about holding it together upon hearing news that the diplomats were out of Iranian airspace.
Memorable Quotes: “This is the best bad idea we have, sir”
“You want to come to Hollywood and act like a bigshot without actually doing anything?! .. You’ll fit right in.”