Film Review – Argo
I’ve made no secret of my admiration for the work of Ben Affleck. Frequently I think he is the best part of the movies he is involved in—I’ve used the case of Good Will Hunting as an example numerous times. Despite winning an Academy Award for co-writing that film, I was curious to see how he would transition into directing, and I’m thrilled to see that after only three films he has already cemented himself amongst the best working today. This will become more clear as we head towards award season, where his latest project, Argo, is sure to garner a lot of attention.
Set during the Iranian hostage crisis, the film follows CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) as, through the creation of a fictional film project, he attempts to extract six American consulate workers who are hiding at the home of the Canadian ambassador in Tehran. I came into the movie with a vague knowledge about the Iranian hostage crisis, but no knowledge of the core story this film is based on. I think this benefited me, because the film was able to succeed as a thriller, rather just being a historical drama. The story is probably unknown even to most of the people who lived through the hostage crisis, because it was classified until Bill Clinton’s administration released the details. Even still, the execution of the film is so well done that it would prove to be engrossing for those who are well-versed on the subject.
The work in recreating the Iranian revolution is incredible, and if you didn’t know better you would think that all of it was done using archival footage and that you were watching a documentary. In fact, the end credits of the movie are full of comparison still frames, and it looks like they were used for storyboarding. This kind of attention to detail adds so much depth to the film that it helps keep it firmly anchored in the realm of reality—and that much more terrifying because of it. Structurally, the film is like a horror movie. There is a slow burn for the first half or so, but when the action is put into motion it is pretty much relentless. As soon as the majority of the action shifts to Iran, the story proceeds like a ticking bomb. Much in the same vein as The Hurt Locker or the recent End of Watch, the film continues to build the tension throughout. This pacing compliments the material incredibly well and was a wise decision by the filmmakers.
For most great directors, it isn’t so much how much they grow in skill from film to film; their success depends on their project selection. As a director, Affleck jumped to the front of the class with Gone Baby Gone, and while I love that and his follow-up, The Town, Argo reaches another level. Not only has he left his comfort zone of present-day Boston, but he does a great job of spreading the story among all of the characters so it isn’t left on one person’s shoulders. Also, despite having worked on thrillers for his first two projects, Affleck continues to finds new ways to raise the tension in the story and keep it there, without having to turn to gimmicks. His growth as a director hasn’t been so much about big jumps forward in skill, but instead a continued refinement of the details that take a good movie and turn it into a great movie.
Affleck also toplines the cast and does an excellent job, but this is truly an ensemble-driven project. The cast that was put together is fantastic, and casting director Lora Kennedy deserves huge kudos. From important players like Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin to small details like Rory Cochrane and Clea DuVall, the ensemble hits all the right notes. Great ensemble casts have been a recurring theme in all of Affleck’s movies—clearly one of his keys to success. I wish the movie had been longer simply because of the fact that I would’ve liked everyone to have more screen time. Unfortunately, the balance in the acting might hurt the film’s chance for acting awards, simply because they could split the vote.
My only “complaint” has nothing to do with the film itself. As talented as Affleck has shown himself to be as a director, he continues to work in thrillers. I would love to see him try different things, since he clearly has the skills. At the same time, I can’t fault him for making great movies; I just hope he isn’t trapped in the allure of big budget projects (much like he was as an actor). This was a phenomenal period piece and that just goes to show his ability to adapt to the project.
It is always fun to see a film that feels like it will be a strong contender at the Academy Awards, but it is even cooler when that film ignites your interest in history. Affleck has created an engaging thriller that sets a high bar for other films this year to live up to, and I’m already eager to see it again.
Final Grade: A