by Padraic Coffey
My, how Ben Affleck has grown. Despite winning an Oscar while still in his twenties for co-writing Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon, an overview of Affleck’s subsequent acting career smacks of unfulfilled talent. Pearl Harbor, though enormously profitable, was savaged by critics and earned Affleck a nomination for Worst Actor at the Golden Raspberries, as did Gigli, a film more famous for the then-relationship between Affleck and co-star Jennifer Lopez than for its content or quality. However, having just turned 40, Affleck is settling comfortably into the role occupied by the likes of Ron Howard, of actor-turned-director. Argo, his third feature film, is his most overtly political to date.
The plot is of the high concept, ‘couldn’t-make-it-up’ variety: in 1979, Iranians storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in protest for America’s sheltering of former Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, detaining any staff found as hostages. Narrowly, six American diplomats escape, and take refuge in the Canadian embassy. Realising it is a matter of time before the Iranians discover their whereabouts, the U.S. State Department considers methods of freeing the six escapees without Iran’s knowledge. The scheme decided upon: pass the six Americans off as a Canadian film crew exploring Iran to shoot a science-fiction movie, then fly them back safely to American soil, under the tutelage of CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck).
In many ways, Affleck is the perfect person to helm a film like Argo. His first-hand knowledge of the film industry, coupled with his overt political activism (he studied Middle Eastern affairs at the University of Vermont), prove equally relevant in telling the story. In order to ensure that the fabricated film is of the highest plausibility, Mendez enlists the help of makeup expert John Chambers (John Goodman) and cantankerous film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). It is here that the more comic moments of Argo can be gleaned, in contrast to the sometimes extraordinarily tense scenes in Iran. Opening with an archaic version of the Warner Bros logo, the detail in capturing the era is impeccable. Costume, makeup, set design – every effort is made to convince the viewer they are a seeing a world in 1980.
The desaturated film stock recalls another Middle Eastern-tinged thriller from recent years, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana; no surprise, given George Clooney acted as co-producer both on it and Argo. Those expecting a Paul Greengrass-esque docudrama along the lines of United 93, however, will be disappointed. Argo is a very skilfully constructed ‘men-on-a-mission’ movie, in the classic tradition of films as outwardly dissimilar as Michael Bay’s Armageddon, another Affleck vehicle. There is much back-and-forth between Mendez in Iran and the bustling offices of the CIA in America, where supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) answers calls and barks dramatic ‘do your job’ style orders.
Certainly, Affleck has a formidable cast at his disposable. Hiding behind a shaggy head of hair and beard, his own performance is admirably understated, though it does raise questions on whether an Hispanic actor should have been cast in the role. Bryan Cranston is superb in the brief screen time he is allotted, and there are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances from character actor stalwarts Philip Baker Hall, Bob Gunton and Richard Kind. It is heartening to see John Goodman again on screen, after many recent stints in animated features, and Alan Arkin provides much of the film’s laughs as the foul-mouthed producer.
Though Argo skates close to sentimentality in its final reel – the fate of the hostages is no secret to those with a knowledge of Iranian-American relations – it remains a brisk, taut piece of cinema that marks another transition for Affleck from critical whipping-boy to respectable filmmaker. Don’t be surprised if a second Oscar looms come next February…