Ben Affleck may be known primarily for his significant acting career, or for the Academy Award-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting he wrote with Matt Damon, or even for the infamous relationship with Jennifer Lopez that seemed to spark the celebrity-couple name mashup craze. He’s less well-known for his directing career; Gone Baby Gone and The Town were solid Boston crime dramas, but both could be safely ignored. I have a feeling that Argo will change this story. This is the masterpiece that will cement Affleck’s reputation as not merely a competent director, but a truly gifted one.
The story is based on the actual exploits of Tony Mendez (Affleck) in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. Six American diplomats (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé, and Rory Cochrane) escaped the embassy as it was being stormed. They hid out at the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) as the rest of the mission was imprisoned within the American embassy. Mendez was brought in as a specialist in “exfiltration” to come up with a way to get the six of them out safely.
And that he did. He judged the prospect of transporting them to the border unworkable, so they would need to construct six new cover identities in almost no time. Most typical stories wouldn’t hold up — all Canadian teachers had already left Iran; agricultural advisors would have no reason to visit in the winter — so he came up with the idea of flying in as a Canadian film producer on a location scouting trip and flying them all out as his crew. It’s insane, but that’s exactly what he did, with the help of real producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and Academy Award-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman).
Credit goes not only to Affleck, but to screenwriter Chris Terrio. They wisely start with a historical recap leading into a gripping reenactment of the storming of the embassy, which works brilliantly to grab the audience’s attention right from the start. More than that, though, it embeds this story in an historical context. You do not have to support the Revolution, but it is clear that these are people doing terrible things for reasons they believe in, not merely blind hatred or movie-villain evil.
Terrio’s script goes deeper: over and over we are presented with the idea of storytelling, and of how reality becomes intertwined with the stories we are told. Mendez’ exfiltration strategy — his entire career with the CIA — consists of making people believe his stories. The story he uses hinges on making a “science-fantasy adventure” movie, which is another form of storytelling that turns out to contain a disquieting amount of truth. To make these stories in the first place, producers like Siegel have to make up stories every bit as much as clandestine agents do. The idea is raised that much of the Revolution we saw in 1980 was itself a story played out in front of another set of video cameras. We see that storytelling can be a dangerous habit. And, of course, we recognize that the very story we are seeing is not necessarily what actually happened. Or we don’t, and this version of Argo becomes our reality.
Aside from all of this, the film works on a more superficial level as a gripping thriller despite the near total lack of “action” after the opening sequence. Affleck draws us elegantly from point to point. He cuts our initial tension with humor in Hollywood, only to slip us back into the hostage crisis before we’re quite aware of what’s happening. It becomes viscerally clear just how crazy this all is when he interleaves shots of a publicity event for a nonexistent Star Wars rip-off with shots of “Tehran Mary”, Niloufar Ebtekar, the spokeswoman for the students occupying the embassy.
Speaking of which, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto does a brilliant job getting the footage to look like late 1970s film stock, to the point that it can be difficult to tell which shots are archival footage and which are expertly recreated. In fact, the credits sequence includes a series of paired stills, showing just how closely matched the images get.
So we have a good story punched up into an engaging thriller that manages to be thoughtful as well. We have a cast full of satisfying performances from the leads on down. And we have Ben Affleck sitting more comfortably than ever in the director’s chair, making what is easily his best film yet, and one that stands as good a chance as any of being the year’s best.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.