Argo begins with the events at the Iranian US embassy on November 4th, 1979, when protesters—incensed by their country’s inveterate political and societal turmoil—broke through the embassy gates and held the residents there for what would become a 444-day hostage situation. Serving as both setting and character introduction, this opening sequence is one of the most indelible and disquieting beginnings I have seen in the theater in a good long while, and provides us with a trove of useful info, both within the movie and without. Superficially, it pulls us headlong into the story, introducing characters and circumstances in a meticulously edited prologue, while building to a truly frightening climax that sets the whole picture in motion. Incidental to the exposition the scene provides is the realization that this is a seminal moment for Ben Affleck as a director. Argo is a strong film in many ways, yet this opening sequence suggests a caliber of talent not just absent from his first two titles, but altogether unaccounted for. It seems that Ben Affleck the Director is the real deal.
That same terrifying November morning, when the eyes of the world were on the Iranian embassy, six Americans slipped quietly out the back door, and fled to the house of Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), the Canadian Ambassador. And here we arrive at the crux of Argo: these six Americans, their detention, and the plan to get them out—an elaborate ruse dreamed up by CIA extrication specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) centered around the bogus production of a fake film entitled Argo. Mendez enlists the help of two Hollywood acquaintances: Makeup Artist John Chambers (John Goodman), and Producer/Director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), utilizing their connections to legitimize his phony production, before making his way to Iran to meet up with the stowaways. Mendez provides them with new identities, adamant that they have precious few hours to memorize them before they face the gauntlet that is the Iranian airport. They will be a Canadian film crew, come to Iran to scout locations, now on their way out of the country. And they will be met with resistance.
I haven’t seen Gone Baby Gone, but I remember The Town as a particularly tense film. Affleck wanted to create a heist film built on suspense, which he did, and he did with impressive skill. In Argo this skill has been honed and refined, resulting in a film that dictates the emotional experience to its audience. There’s no ambiguity in Argo–from the first shot of frenzied protestors to the hero’s final redemption, you know precisely how you’re supposed to feel based on the camera’s focus and the film’s soundtrack. This emotional manipulation can be a double-edged sword. Guiding your audience to feel and react the way you want them to is an exceptional talent, and vital to being a noteworthy director. Antithetically, this style of artful filmmaking doesn’t give your audience any room to think, or even breathe, and can result in a memorable experience but a forgettable film. It also simplifies the heroes and villains, and while the world may not have been attuned to political correctness in the early 80s, Affleck’s depiction of the Iranian people often veers towards one dimension—evil. Regardless, the storytelling on display here speaks volumes about what Affleck has picked up in his Hollywood years. It’s easy to picture him as the guy standing over Director X’s shoulder, listening and learning while his co-stars nap in their trailers. You don’t glean this kind of skill simply through connections, and Affleck should be applauded for the work he’s put in to get here.
On second thought, I suppose he could be commended for said connections, as Argo is a talent parade. Certainly the first tier of characters is filled out with strong and marketable talent, and guys like Goodman and Arkin, and Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss have made the director’s work a whole lot easier. But there are also distinctly recognizable actors getting 30 seconds of screen time in this film. Having friends in high places can do wonders for your movie’s overall quality, and as much as this contributes to the film’s ultimate success, Affleck’s maturing talent as a director is undeniable.
Unfortunately, herein lies the difference between Argo being one of the best films of the year and merely being a strong film from a young director. While Ben Affleck’s third film is undoubtedly successful in articulating his voice, it’s also clearly the product of many hands. This isn’t a knock, and it certainly doesn’t suggest that Affleck has maxed out; as I said before, Argo is definitive proof that he is going places. It must, however, be taken for what it is, and not what it could have been. While the peaks and valleys of Argo are surprisingly well executed, they don’t hide the director’s uncertainties and bad habits. Only time can do that.