When Argo turned out to be a surprise hit at the Telluride Film Festival this year, Ben Affleck told a screening audience that he was trying to make a movie that was one part action thriller, one part comedy and one part inspired by '70s films like All the President's Men.
Directors say stuff like that all the time, but rarely do they succeed at getting that kind of satisfying stew onscreen as well as Affleck has done with Argo.
If you've watched commercial TV in recent weeks, chances are you've seen one of the wash of ads for Argo and you know the basics of what it's about: In 1979, Iranian militants took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, holding 52 people hostage for 444 days. The story was on the news daily for more than a year, but there was a lesser-known story about six Americans managing to escape and find refuge in the home of Canadian Ambassador Paul Taylor.
Tony Mendez, a CIA "exfiltration" specialist, came up with a bizarre plan to get the six Americans out of Iran: Create a fake Hollywood movie and have the Americans pose as the film crew to smuggle them out. Mendez, played in the film by a weary-looking Affleck with a carpet of '70s hair and a shaggy beard, enlisted the help of a Hollywood makeup artist and a producer, played in the movie respectively by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, to concoct a phony science-fiction film that could believably use Middle Eastern desert locations
Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio begin the movie with a brief recap of Iranian history that adds context to the takeover, which Affleck films with a sense of tense realism. As Mendez comes up with his scheme and tries to convince his CIA colleagues, including Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, in a wry performance, that it will work, the movie takes on a tone of dry humor that becomes broad when Goodman and Arkin enter the scene and the movie starts taking satirical pot-shots at Hollywood.
Arkin is in the movie for a total of maybe five minutes, but he gives the kind of scene-stealing p erformance that leads to an Oscar for best supporting actor, and he plays well off of Affleck's comparatively low-key acting. But if Affleck seems toned down as an actor, he's on fire as a director, with a climactic sequence that's a little preposterous — Affleck admits the movie played with the facts here — but that works so well it's hard to mind. (As the ads say, it had preview audiences cheering.)
It's an understatement to say Affleck's acting career has been erratic (Gigli, anyone?), but his directing career is solidly on track: Argo is his third feature, following Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and with every new movie, he seems more assured.
Given the Academy Awards' history of honoring actors-turned-directors (Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood), Affleck could be an early favorite in the race for best director. But while those other actors' films had a heaviness to them, Argo works as crowd-pleasing entertainment with a serious side. With Affleck's continued growth as a director, it makes you want to see what he'll deliver next.