It’s been an interesting career for Ben Affleck – from Academy Award winning writer (Good Will Hunting) to popcorn action flick movie star (Armageddon) to tabloid whipping boy (his relationship with Jennifer Lopez and their movie Gigli). Never much of an actor, when the doors to Hollywood shut down to Affleck, he reinvented himself as a director and a pretty good one at that (Gone Baby Gone, The Town). So it was with great curiosity that I went to see Argo - not only to see if he could maintain his impressive run behind the camera, but also to find out if this film was worth all the Oscar buzz. Because in case you haven’t noticed, every other movie that gets released during Q4 is touted as an Oscar contender, when really only one or two of them actually has the goods. Having seen Argo, I can firmly say it’s one of the few that is worthy of the hype.
Argo is based upon the real life events surrounding the raid of the U.S. Embassy during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Six staffers were able to avoid capture and found refuge at the Canadian embassy. The plot of the movie details a formerly classified CIA operation to smuggle those individuals safely from the country by posing as a crew scouting locations for the fictitious production of the movie Argo.
A lot of things go right in the telling of this story, but it all begins and ends with the directing. Based on a strong script by writer Chris Terrio, Affleck keeps the events of the movie rolling and it is his ability to maintain such pacing throughout the narrative that serves as the strongest aspect of the movie. The story unfolds briskly while hitting on all the important plot details without ever feeling rushed. With each frame of the film, it feels as though layers upon layers of tension are added to the proceedings filling each scene with a sense of urgency that crescendoes until the climax of the movie.
Affleck's strong directorial effort is backed by very good cast work. Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, and John Goodman are three veteran actors who use every ounce of their talents to augment the tone of the film and give motion to the plot even though their characters are for the most part sedentary – relegated to desks and chairs. Arkin and Goodman are especially great when they bring brief moments of levity to the film, giving the plot a sense of balance and creating a strong contrast between the scenes in the U.S. and those set in Iran. Also impressive was the work of Tate Donovan, Scott McNairy, Clea DuVall, and Kerry Bishe as embassy escapees. Much of the tension of the second and third act is derived from their respective abilities to convey the terror, paranoia, and claustrophobia associated with their plight and in this regard they do a great job.
And of course there is Ben Affleck. He doesn’t have a lot of range in front of the camera – he really only has one gear as an actor, but when he is cast in the right role his performances are very credible. Fortunately, the role of Tony Mendez is one that falls right in his wheelhouse. Affleck does a nice job of portraying a grounded, somewhat broken individual with the singular focus to bring his fellow Americans home. His performance is the final touch on what proves to be a great showing all the way around for this native of Boston.
By now it should come as no surprise that I absolutely recommend this movie and suggest that you see it in the cinema. As impressive as the home viewing experience has become, it is hard to replicate the feeling of going into the theater surrounded by fellow members of an audience and watching a very good story unfold. On paper I can be very critical of movies, but I really do love films and find even the slightest bit of entertainment value in almost everything I see. Yet I would be the first to tell you that the combination of good story telling and good filmmaking can be hard to find, but that is precisely what Argo is. And films of this caliber deserve the big picture treatment.
Standout Performance: Ben Affleck for good work in front of the camera and great work behind the camera that should garner plenty of Oscar attention.