LOS ANGELES — The physical requirements for the scene weren't complicated. Bryan Cranston, who plays CIA manager Jack O'Donnell in director Ben Affleck's hostage rescue drama Argo, had to walk from one office to another, and as laid out in a Los Angeles set late last year, a straight line ran from point A to point B.
But before Cranston took a step, Affleck pulled the actor aside and redirected him.
Iranian militants had just stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and details about the 1979 takeover were muddled — the situation was chaotic, and O'Donnell's demeanor had to reflect that. What's more, O'Donnell had to deliver more narrative exposition than could possibly fit if he walked and talked without any detours. So Affleck plotted a zig-zagging path filled with barriers such as desks and chairs, giving the character not only the time to explain the event but also plenty of impediments to dramatize the pandemonium.
"It seemed kind of odd, but the director can inform the audience what the physical geography is," Cranston said. "What it told me was that Ben was still telling the story."
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Though it was but a small moment in the Warner Bros. film, Affleck's choice in directing Cranston highlighted a combination of intelligence, filmmaking savvy and attention to detail rarely found in studio productions. In one of the first meetings Affleck had about directing Argo, he talked about film stock and camera lenses, not marketing hooks and stunt casting.
Opening Friday, Affleck's third film as a director (following 2007's Gone Baby Gone and 2010's The Town) won early acclaim from critics and audiences at the fall film festivals. Argo is already generating favorable mentions from all manner of awards prognosticators, and Affleck has been singled out for his work not only behind the camera but also in front of it — he stars in Argo as Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who invented the rescue scheme.
Yet the film, based on real-life events but goosed with fictional third-act suspense, is as much a stand-alone movie as the cap to a remarkable Hollywood comeback story.
Less than 10 years after dwelling in the industry's punch-line fringes, owing largely to the disastrous Gigli and his relationship with costar Jennifer Lopez that branded the couple "Bennifer," Affleck, 40, has transformed himself into one of the town's most sought-after directors. Like actor-directors Clint Eastwood and George Clooney, Affleck is determined to make intelligent crowd-pleasers, and his first two movies did just that.
Though more than a few directors are comfortable essentially making the same movie again and again, Affleck quite purposefully chose Argo because he'd never done anything quite like it. Gone Baby Gone, adapted from the Dennis Lehane book of the same name, and The Town, based on Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves, were crime dramas set in and around Boston. While they were commended for sharp performances and execution, the two films fit rather narrowly into a well-traveled niche.
Argo, adapted by Chris Terrio from a Wired magazine article and a chapter from the memoir by the CIA's Mendez, defies easy categorization. It's a hybrid of historical drama, spy tale and political thriller, stirred together with sharp jokes spoofing Hollywood — and all of it based on a little-known mission declassified in 1997. With a price tag of about $44 million, Argo is also one of the season's more daring gambles, the kind of movie most studios stopped making during the past decade.
As Iranian militants stormed the U.S. embassy, six State Department employees narrowly escaped the takeover, hiding with Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. To bring the Americans home, Mendez had to concoct a plan that would allow the houseguests essentially to walk out and fly home in plain sight. Mendez's epiphany was to have the six pose as a movie crew; to sell the con, Mendez created a fake movie called Argo and a bogus production company.
"I was so greedy to be a part of it," said Affleck, who was a Middle Eastern studies major at Occidental College before dropping out to act and team with Matt Damon on the screenplay for 1997's Good Will Hunting, which won them an Oscar. Argo's "screenplay was clearly written by somebody who had similar taste to mine, which wants to err on the side away from telling the audience what to think, and rather allow them to make their own determinations and insights."
Terrio's script had been developed by producers Grant Heslov and Clooney, and the two had seen something in Affleck's first two features that convinced them he was a wise Argo pick.
"They were not groundbreaking stories, but they were really well told," Heslov said of Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Clooney said he was disinclined to say Affleck has grown as a director. "I'm not sure about 'growth' because that would imply that his first two films were somehow lacking," Clooney said. "I loved them both."