Argo (****)

In the mid-2000’s Ben Affleck was the last person I would have thought would change the course of his career and become one of the finest new directors in American cinema. Success came very quickly to Affleck, winning an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay to Good Will Hunting (1997) with his best friend Matt Damon, a film in which each had a major role, though it was Damon who was nominated for the Oscar as Best Actor. In the outstanding book Dirty Little Pictures by the great Peter Biskind, the author makes clear which many behind the scenes of the Affleck-Damon relationship knew, Damon was an actor, a true artist, while Affleck was a movie star who cared about his payday. He followed who was making what and understood his own worth to a film, wanting nothing more than to be paid for such. When Harvey Weinstein pulled his infamous “what I did for you…” business with Affleck, the actor reminded the mogul that part of the success had been Affleck and his contribution, so while he was grateful to Weinstein, he was not going to keep doing work for Harvey for so little. By 2002, he was commanding fifteen million dollars a film, but for the most part they were terrible scripts, offering the actor nothing in return. While Matt Damon found challenging work in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and eventually The Bourne franchise, Affleck found his star waning. The failure and poor reviews for films such as Pearl Harbor (2001), Daredevil (2003), the woeful Gigli (2003) and Surviving Christmas (2004) had nearly ruined Affleck in the business, he was now something of a laughing-stock as an actor.

It was known that the man could act; he had given a fine lived in performance in Good Will Hunting (1997) and was terrific in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (1996). Best of all was his raging angel in the under appreciated Dogma (1999) which displayed a side to the actor not previously seen, and once again had him on screen with Damon.
However with several consecutive failures as an actor, he took stock of his career and took a break. His very public life had been a strain on him, and when he found a script entitled Hollywoodland (2006) a low-budget little flick which explored the death of TV Superman George Reeves, the subsequent investigation, and the impact of the death of Superman on the culture of the time, he dropped his price and stepped into the tights. The results were what Affleck had hoped they would be, his fine and strong performance as the troubled actor earned him excellent reviews and a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actor. His performance was the finest of his career up to that point, and he should have been a nominee for the Academy Award.

One year later he was basking in the best reviews of his career for a film entitled gone Baby Gone (2007), but not as an actor, he directed this one. Drawing fine performances from the likes of Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan, his brother Casey Affleck, and Michelle Monaghan, he proved his worth as a director, gently guiding the actors, and allowing the story to unfold and pull the audience in. Capturing the atmosphere of the area was one of the great strengths of the film, and Affleck made that a priority, aware he had to plunge his audience into the area where these characters lived and breathed, ate and drank, loved and hated. The fact he grew up in that area, knew those people and their habits lent itself enormously to the film in the same manner Scorsese’s background aids his films and their atmosphere.

Three years later he proved Gone Baby Gone (2007) had been no fluke with The Town (2010) a sprawling crime drama in which the actor took the lead role drawing concern from some critics, admittedly myself. When I first saw the film at TIFF, I was stunned by the confidence Affleck displayed as a director, by the bold movement of the film, and the outstanding performances of the actors, including Affleck. Once again, fine actors did some of their work under his direction, and each one, Chris Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Jon Hamm had nothing but good things to say about their director. There was much hope within the industry that The Town might earn the actor turned director some attention from the Academy with a nod for Best Director, but only Jeremy Renner was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his seething work as a bank robber who loves the rush. Beyond his confidence as a filmmaker, his work as an actor within the film was flawless, as he surpassed his best work in Hollywoodland (2006) and knocked it out of the park in The Town (2010). Brilliantly merging character study with finely shot and cut action, the film was thrilling from the moment it started until the final fade out, a credit to the director.

Hollywood loves a comeback and though Affleck has never really been away it is safe to say he fell out of favor with audiences and critics as an actor. With his work as a director, people are smiling when they talk about him, and there is a very real chance he could finally earn that nomination for Best Director for his new film, the superb Argo, when the Oscar nominations are announced. It’s what we need right now, a really, really good movie.
Based on a true story declassified by President Bill Clinton, Argo explores the events surrounding a daring rescue attempt which took place when all hell broke loose in Iran. Four hundred and forty-four hostages were taken by the Iranian government, which became a thorn in President Jimmy Carter’s side, his failure to get them out and bring them home very likely costing him the second term of his presidency. But when Iran went into chaos, six Americans ran and found hiding places in the home of Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador.

The CIA was contacted and Tony Mendez (Affleck) found himself heading up the case, working out a way to bring the six homes. Technically they were not hostages, as they were in hiding, but if their existence was discovered they would be executed without hesitation and the rescue mission might doom the others being held. A scheme was concocted for the CIA to pretend they were Hollywood types shooting a big budget science fiction fantasy in Iran, plausible because Star Wars (1977) had torn up the box office! Dangerous because if found out, it could mean the deaths of more than one hundred Americans.

Approaching John Chambers (John Goodman) a revered and Oscar-winning makeup artist, hoping for his help, he is introduced to Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) an award-winning producer who quickly sees the possibilities with the Mendez scheme and jumps in with both feet. His only essential is that “if I am going to produce a fake movie. I have to have a hit.”
There is a great deal of humor in the film’s first half as the “movie” slowly comes together and the team makes initial contact in Iran to scout locations. However once they land in Tehran there is a smooth transition from comedy to thriller as Affleck tightens the screws on the story and allows it to become a tension filled thriller with overwhelming suspense.

Granted, liberties are taken with the ending of the film, (I mean come on…it’s Hollywood) but that does not stop the film from being a wildly entertaining ride through history, and allows the audience to see a daring escape with death awaiting around every corner. Once the Iran government discovers they have been played, every move made becomes a matter of life and death.

In Affleck’s previous two films, he kept the focus on the characters, plunging us into their world, allowing us to move through the story with them,  but the characters were always first and foremost. In Argo, the atmosphere initially is familiar, but once in Tehran, we are all out of our comfort zone, and the director exploits this allowing it to throw the characters and the audience off kilter. There was genuine sweep to this film, a larger scope for the director which he recognized, and tremendous power in the story that Affleck brought to the very center of the story. Did it happen just like it does in the film? No, but we accept that because it is a movie after all and the whole thing is so damned good and so much fun!!

The performances of the actors are key to the films’ success, beginning with Affleck as CIA operative Mendez, a smart man who puts together a daring plan without ever believing the Iran government will figure it out. Under estimating them is his greatest error, as it is sheer arrogance to believe that we were so much smarter than they were. Affleck is focused as Mendez, intense and thoroughly believable in the role. It might be his best performance.
Is John Goodman the best character actor in movies? He might be. I think of his work for the Coen brothers, in particular his fine, large performance in O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) and his recent film work which has been exciting in that the man is getting attention again. As John Chambers he delivers a superb performance as a man dedicated to his art, and we find equally dedicated to his country, a patriot applying makeup on the faces of actors quietly in Hollywood. Talk about getting into the project!!

Alan Arkin is wonderful as Siegel, the fast talking producer, reminding me of Dustin Hoffman’s producer creating a war in Wag the Dog (1997) a film that ties in nicely with this one when you sit down and think about them.
Argo is brilliant, with a screenplay that feels and sounds like the sort of thing Paddy Chayevsky might have written had he still been alive. His work could be funny, finding belly laughs in the story, then suddenly turning savage and hurling the audience in a very different direction. Chris Terrio does a fine job with the writing here, though it is Affleck who brings it so vividly to life. Often I felt like I was watching something directed by Alan J. Pakula or Sydney Pollack at the height of their careers, rather than the third film from one of the most exciting new talents behind the camera in American film.

An Oscar contender and, I suspect one of the ten best films of the year.