Ben Affleck sure has come a long way since his “dick joke” days with Kevin Smith. After his GIGLI and Beniffer fiasco, the actor wisely took some time off and returned in 2006 to appear in HOLLYWOODLAND. That was the mark of a new era for Affleck. It was an announcement that a new, “serious” Affleck had arrived. Then in 2007 he made his directorial debut with the impressive GONE BABY GONE. Since then, it’s been no turning back as he followed up that movie with THE TOWN, which was highly acclaimed (though I didn’t care for that one too much). And now, with his third film as a director, Affleck has pretty much demanded that you take him as a serious filmmaker.
(Warning: I’m very naive and unaware when it comes to political issues. So I had no clue that any of these events, like the revolution in Iran back in 1979 had even happened. So for that, I apologize)
The movie opens in 1979 Iran. 6 American Government workers escape their office building as it’s being ransacked by a bunch of irate Iranians. They capture everyone else, and those prisoners may possibly be executed. But the 6 that escape hide out at the Canadian Ambassador’s home in Iran. The CIA has been made aware of this and try to figure out how the heck to get them out of the country, as they are still being hunted by the Iranians. Enter CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), who comes up with a ludicrous plan to pose as a film producer making a low-budget STAR WARS rip-off entitled ARGO. He enlists the help of 2 Hollywood big shots (Alan Arkin, John Goodman) to put the fake movie into pre-production, complete with a press announcement to the public. It even has a finished script. Mendez then goes to Iran, briefs the 6 American fugitives about how they’re going to be his film crew, and attempt to fly out of the country after they’re done “location scouting”.
This story would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. The opening scene, when the Iranians charge the American building is pretty chaotic and intense. Then the film introduces Affleck’s character as a family man who loves watching PLANET OF THE APES movies with his son. It’s while watching that he comes up with the idea to pose as a producer, since Sci-Fi films often use exotic locations for different planets and such. There’s a lot of government, political mumbo jumbo in the first act, and I’ll be honest…. a lot of it went over my head. I’m sorry for not being sophisticated. I seriously have a low IQ. And that’s not a joke.
However, the tone shifts to a lighthearted one in the second act when Tony goes to Hollywood and meets Alan Arkin. Arkin is essentially playing himself. It’s the same character that you’ve seen him do a million times. But it’s funny and definitely works for the film. I didn’t think some of the humor was as funny as the filmmakers thought it was (like a running joke involving the title of the fake movie and an F-word), but I smiled on occasion. It was amusing to see the pre-production phase on ARGO, with cheesy Roger Corman costumes and makeup. But this portion has such a different tone, that it almost felt like it was a whole other movie. At this point, I still wasn’t sure if I was digging the film or not.
But the third act is when the film really excels. This is the actual mission of trying to get the 6 Americans out and it generates maximum suspense. Even though there are no gun shots fired, no car chases, no fist fights, I was on the edge of my seat as they were trying to get to that plane to leave the country. I have to give Affleck much credit for achieving this. It’s not easy to generate tension out of practically nothing, and he accomplishes that… and more! So ultimately, the film worked for me, though I’m not calling it “one of the best films of the year” like so many other critics are doing right now.
The performances are solid all around. Affleck is probably the least showy, as his work is very understated, delivering most of his lines like he’s on Xanax. But I think that’s how the character was written. It’s not bad at all, just very low-key. Affleck has done a marvelous job surrounding himself with an eclectic supporting cast. Like I said, Arkin is Arkin. John Goodman is fine, but didn’t blow me away. Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s superior does some great work, and also has the best line in the movie (which is a Muppet Show reference). It was nice seeing great character actors getting some decent parts here too, like Tate Donovan, a unrecognizable Clea DuVall, an even more unrecognizable Rory Cochran (the long-haired stoner from DAZED AND CONFUSED), Philip Baker Hall, Bob Gunton, Kyle Chandler, Richard Kind, and Adrienne Barbeau (I do admit that I didn’t know she was in the film, until the end credits). The only disappointing casting decision was only giving the fantastic Michael Parks only 2 lines? Come on! But no, the actors are all good here.
The script also has some zing to it. Many fun and creative obscenities. I didn’t know so many things could be referred to genitalia. That was amusing, and keeps the film from ever becoming boring. Good quotable lines here. The direction by Affleck is about on par with THE TOWN. He teases us in the beginning with the old 70’s Warner Brothers logo, and I got excited that maybe he shot this film like a 70’s picture. But its not. And that’s fine. It’s solid serviceable direction, without ever really drawing attention to itself. It’s more of the editing that gives the film it’s suspense.
Before I wrap this up, I must mention one thing that irritated me throughout most of the first half, and was the reason why I had a tough time getting into the film. The hair and makeup! I know this is 1979/1980… but not every single person had the same hair style. If you watch films from the 70’s, the styles vary and they’re never perfect. There was a lot of messy hair going on, but here I felt like it looked TOO good. Also, some of the fake mustaches were obviously FAKE. I wanted to walk up to a few of those actors and just rip them off their faces. I had a tough time NOT seeing actors in makeup. It just didn’t look natural to me. How can I put this….. Oh! I got it! I would compare the hair and makeup to that of ANCHORMAN (like Paul Rudd and Steve Carell). It just looked too obvious and silly on some of these actors.
But, the movie still works because it IS engaging and suspenseful. It’s got solid direction, a snappy script and good performances. I found it hard for me to get into at first, but the final act more than makes up for it. I’m not quite ready to start sucking Affleck’s dick like everyone else, but am willing to entertain the possibility of a handjob”. I will say that he seems to be getting more confident with each outing, and I am looking forward to see what he tackles next. Folks that love politically charged thrillers will eat this movie up. It took me awhile, but it eventually won me over. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Rated R for language and some violent images.
Running time: 2hrs.