Despite his questionable acting choices over the years, Ben Affleck has positioned himself as one of the esteemed directors of our time. His debut, Gone Baby Gone, was a flawed-but-valient effort to supply a gritty New England detective story with a stellar cast (Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris). The Town was a heist film gone awry that almost landed a Best Picture nod. Both times Affleck fell short of nominations for his directing, too (though he's a co-winner with best friend Matt Damon for the screenplay of Good Will Hunting).
Things are about to change for Mr. Affleck, though. His latest film, in which he also stars, is the Middle Eastern "based on a true story" epic Argo. With some memorable performances by the supporting cast, including Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Alda, Argo achieves some great edge-of-your-seat moments, while also delivering style and substance.
In the midst of the early 80's Iranian revolution, a group of six American embassy workers are forced into hiding after the embassy is taken over. Our friendly neighbors to the north gladly hide them in their crawlspace until the US government can come up with a plan. With the help of CIA special agent, and "exfiltration" specialist, Tony Mendez, the government backs the creation of a real, working Hollywood production studio, adopts a screenplay, and begins production on a fake sci-fi epic. The idea is to cover the six Americans as a Canadian film crew in the area to scout locations for the goofy alien film Argo. Besides having to really convince the Americans that this is the only way out, the plan should go forward without a hitch. Thanks to Affleck's clever direction (or, should I say, clever throwback to classic Hollywood thrillers), we can't get to the end without a few "Are they going to make it?" moments.
Similar to Paul Greengrass's United 93, we know the ending before the movie even starts, but it's the techniques used to tell the story that set this apart from being just a biopic and becoming a true Hollywood event. Affleck chose style over glamour, picking a mix of somewhat famous faces and newcomers to play the hostages and Washington power players. During the end credits we get to see the real faces against the performers and it's interesting to see the similarities.
Argo isn't necessarily the most unique or groundbreaking film, but it is a well-made Hollywood story with all of the right ingredients to make a fun night at the movies. It's epic enough to require only the best in cinematography and music. It's important enough to not require big names to tell a big story. It's stylish enough to not only concentrate on cheeky "period" styles, but to produce costumes, hair, and even a film style straight from the Carter years. And, it's quirky enough to be so unbelievable, it has to be true.
It's receiving enough buzz right now to move to the tops of some critic's lists, but I'm not sure if it has what it'll take to make it all the way until Oscar time. It'll definitely make the rounds of being nominated for quite a few awards, though. And, Affleck should finally get the recognition he deserves. Years ago he was named "the next Clint Eastwood" and I think it's finally come true.
If you're looking for a smart thrill, Argo delivers.
Runtime: 120 minutes.