Dir.: Ben Affleck
With: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston
Reinvention and self-fashioning are the two things that Hollywood absolutely loves. Old tales are constantly renewed and public figures often turn a new leaf, having lead scandalous lives, gleefully dissected by the media. Yet there aren’t many Hollywood inhabitants whose life experiences turn into a series of re-characterisations like in Ben Affleck’s case. He famously came to our attention as the dark-haired component of the successful writing/acting duo with Matt Damon after “Good Will Hunting”. His collaboration with Kevin Smith gave as “Dogma” and “Chasing Amy” and cemented his reputation as the bright young thing from the East Side. Fast-forward a few years and his career veered off in the more commercial and highly embarrassing direction of “Daredevil”, “Gigli” and “Armageddon”. And then the whole Bennifer thing happened. And that awful video with J-Lo. It is so weird to think now that the young man who co-wrote “Good Will Hunting”, the ultimate underdog story, would be filmed slapping J-Lo’s bottom, fine though it may be, to a song that went ‘Make the money, get the mansion, bring the homies with us’. Again, fast-forward four more years and he is married to the demure Jennifer Garner and directs his first film “Gone Baby Gone” that has 94% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes. His second feature, the highly acclaimed “The Town” (it made onto my '10 Films of 2010' list here), stars Affleck in the main role (although it was Jeremy Renner who received an Oscar nomination for his performance) and also has 94% on RT.
His third creation “Argo” can be seen as a natural progression from “The Town”. Again, it boasts a wonderful ensemble cast, lead by Affleck, and combines humour with tension. However, it tackles a more serious topic. According to the source of all my knowledge, Wikipedia, Affleck majored in Middle Eastern studies, so the focus of his interest is, clearly, no accident (how I hope that he came across this particular bit of international politics in a classroom). In short, this is a real life story of how a CIA exfiltration expert pretends to be a film producer scouting for locations and facilitates the escape of six US Embassy staff, who spent over 2 months in hiding in Tehran as a direct result of the Revolution of 1979.
It is clear that the story is painstakingly researched (but obviously, with some dramatic licence) and, as it is shown after the credits roll, some of the scenes were re-created directly from contemporary photographs. The grainy quality of the film adds to the period look. The overall impression is one of utmost realism, which I think is the main reason for the success of this film. Because it is simply amazing. Affleck skillfully oscillates between comedy and thriller as a director and gives a mature and muted performance as an actor. His greatest characteristic is that he possesses the gravitas to be the quiet centre of the storm, allowing other actors to shine next to him with more flamboyant performances.
The first fifteen minutes of the film give a sort of Iranian-revolution-for-dummies introduction into the background story and the film dives right into the heart of riots in Tehran. My mouth was dry from watching the angry mob attack the US Embassy because it felt too much like a documentary. Then the action goes to the US and the film takes on a much lighter approach, poking fun at the CIA stooges and the Hollywood crazies. John Goodman and Alan Arkin, playing a make-up artist and big time producer respectively, deliver the most comedy moments, as does Ben Affleck’s groovy wardrobe.
The second half of the film changes pace considerably, for operation “Argo” is now under full swing. I was sweating, exhaling loudly, fidgeting, biting my nails and literally praying for the characters. The feeling of paranoia introduced right at the start of the film, saturates its second half. You sense that any minute something can go wrong, someone is watching and the covers will be blown. Although “Argo” is only a thriller, it is both an intense and rewarding experience with an informative historical insight, for I do not believe that many young Western audiences would be familiar with the particulars of Iranian history and the West’s relationship to it. I take my imaginary hat off to Ben Affleck for having achieved this. If you watch any of the promotional interviews for the film, he comes across as knowledgeable, secure and self-deprecating (he can also work a granny’s cardigan with great style). A man of many talents, no doubt. I predict an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, none of the scenes were actually filmed in Iran.