Ben Affleck has had a strange career. As far back as his early films with Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), he’s taken a lot of flack for his acting. But the moment he got behind the camera with Gone Baby Gone, audiences and critics put away their complaints as they watched his true talent unfold in front of them. Indeed, Ben Affleck is a good director – he’s not always my cup of tea, but I won’t deny that he has a serious gift for filmmaking. And so it’s little surprise that his third feature-length film, Argo, is an unabashedly thrilling tour de force that sits comfortably on par with his previous effort, The Town.
Argo is an exercise in anxiety. From the moment the film starts, we are immediately enraptured in the fate of the hostages in Iran. And for most of the film, the gravity of this international disaster is at the forefront of our minds, building suspense and giving the film an overall sense of purpose. But while Affleck’s conflict-building works, some of it can feel a little contrived; doors not opening and cars not starting are feel like tacked on conceits, which is a shame given the already-exciting premise of the film.
Affleck is sort of an anti-Nicholas Winding Refn, never letting the camera rest on the face of any one character for longer than a few seconds. This works well in Argo, giving the film a decidedly kinetic feel that increases the roller coaster feel of the plot. I’m not sure I particularly enjoy this fast-paced style, as it gives very little time for subtlety, but in the end this film benefits from it in a very positive way.
Likewise, Affleck’s writing is generally very solid. Occasionally the script veers into ham-handed dialogue, pushing emotion and exposition in a way that feels less than organic. Because of this, the stronger scenes happen when the characters keep their comments short and sweet. This keeps the film focused on driving the story forward, which is essential in a blockbuster thriller.
An interesting phenomenon that was hard not to notice in Argo is that not one of the primary cast members seems to be stretching their acting muscles at all. Most of the film they spend looking scared and frightened, or in Affleck’s case reserved and expressionless. The exception to this rule are Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who are absolutely wonderful; just seeing them on screen together is a joy. They play off one another exceptionally well, and seem to be making the most of their caricatures of Hollywood bigwigs.
Despite their chemistry, however, there is a strange tonal dichotomy in this film between the scenes in Hollywood with Arkin and Goodman and the harsh reality of the Iranian hostage crisis. The opening of the film is a terrifying, uncannily realistic depiction of what happened at the US Embassy in Iran, and yet the subsequent focus on the movie making world is full of whimsy and laughter. It is a jarring juxtaposition. Nevertheless, I can’t fault Affleck for it – this contrast between the very real international issue and the sheer absurdity of Mendez’s plan are what make the true story so compelling.
Ultimately, Argo does manage to strike a strange but pleasing balance between sweetness, comedy, and intense fear. This combination makes for a unique experience that, perhaps due to its strong adherence to real events, is altogether convincing and memorable. In particular, the ongoing side story about Mendez’s wife and child give what seems like an otherwise heroic-but-flat protagonist a compelling background and believable character motivations.
Argo is one of the most crowd-pleasing, fun rides of the year. It is another strong addition to Ben Affleck’s growing film œuvre, further cementing him as a promising director we should all keep an eye on; I expect to see a true masterpiece out of this man soon. And while Argo doesn’t quite fit that bill, I promise it is well-worth your time and money.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on Tony Mendez – I understand that Ben Affleck can’t resist starring in his own films, and he hardly tries to steal the film as its protagonist with some over-the-top performance, but I was a little queasy at his choice not to choose an actual Hispanic actor to play Tony Mendez. At the end of the film, we have a chance to see photographs showing how well each of the hostages were cast. When the actual Tony Mendez, shows up, I actually laughed – Ben Affleck doesn’t even sort of resemble him, even hidden under all of that facial scruff. This isn’t a big issue, but I was kind of put off by it.