by Jase Howell
It now seems definitive that Ben Affleck has found his calling in Hollywood.
The much-maligned and lampooned actor’s career arc has taken him from a struggling actor, to half of an Oscar-winning screenwriting tandem (along with Matt Damon), to blockbuster action star, to prime tabloid fodder. He nearly worked his way out of any credibility he had in Hollywood with a string of disastrous bombs, but he has in the last few years re-invented himself behind the camera as a truly gifted director. He directed his brother, Casey, in the gritty mystery “Gone Baby Gone,” which garnered critical acclaim, and followed that in 2010 with “The Town,” a bloody caper that drew praise from critics and made big money at the box office.
Affleck’s latest endeavor, “Argo,” is his best work yet — a film that is brilliant testament to the old adage that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. “Argo” takes us back to a tumultuous time in Iran, circa 1979. Most of us are familiar with the Iran hostage crisis, which occurred after the Shah was overthrown and, in response to the United States offering him asylum, thousands of Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy and took everyone hostage, thinking they could exchange the hostages for the Shah. Six embassy workers escaped and found refuge at the Canadian embassy, but time is running short before the Iranians realize six people are missing.
Meanwhile, CIA chief Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) enlists the help of operative Tony Mendez (Affleck), an expert at extraction, to design a plan to get the escapees out of Iran. This is no easy feat, in fact it almost seems impossible. The plan Mendez works up seems ludicrous, and is even described by O’Donnell as the “best bad plan” they have. Mendez wants to extract the six hostages under the pretense that they are part of a Canadian film crew in Iran scouting locations for a new sci-fi film titled “Argo.”
The idea that a film crew would be scouting Iran during the hostage crisis is ridiculous, but that’s part of what makes the film so amazing. Mendez contacts Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, who brings the idea to Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Siegel has seen better days in the film industry, but still has a bit of clout; and soon the background layers are in motion — press readings for the fake film, the creation of story boards, and the planting of fake articles in Variety magazine. Mendez flies alone to Tehran to prep the six after the plan is reluctantly greenlighted. To say the six Americans are dumbfounded that this is the best the government can come up with is an understatement.
Affleck, working with the screenplay by Chris Terrio, has little time for meaningless exposition “Argo.” This film gets straight to the point, and this immediacy lends to the intensity of every situation including final act which is white knuckle entertainment at its best. It’s impressive to see film so filled with intrigue and intensity, where the hero CIA agent isn’t even wearing a gun and bombastic shootouts aren’t necessary.
It also doesn’t hurt to put together a stellar cast. Cranston is in some meaty scenes but never plays over the top, while Arkin and always solid veteran character actor John Goodman provide most of the laughs. Victor Garber, meanwhile, is stellar as the Canadian ambassador who risks the lives of himself and his wife to protect the Americans; and Affleck knows what to do with Mendez, suggesting a quiet but courageous operative willing to risk anything to get the six home.
This compelling film is made even more amazing by the fact much of it is true, at least the part about disguising the hostages as actors. “Argo” is without a doubt one of the best films of the year and not to be missed.