Since stepping behind the camera to direct, Ben Affleck has yet to make a movie that doesnt pull us to the edge of our seats.
He may have showed his easy way with suspense and pathos, chases and humor with Gone Baby Gone and The Town. But Argo has him operating on a whole new level.
This deft blend of mortal terror, personal and national humiliations and Hollywood chutzpah is one of the best pictures of the year.
Argo is based on a true story that took place during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80. Six Americans slipped through Iranian clutches and hid out in the Canadian ambassadors residence. The U.S. State Department wanted to disguise them and have them ride out of the country on bicycles. But one C.I.A. agent had a better idea. Give em sunglasses, call them movie people and pass them off as Hollywood types on a location scout for a Star Wars ripoff set in the desert.
It is the best bad idea the higher-ups (Philip Baker Hall, Bob Gunton) have in front of them. So Tony Mendez (Affleck) gets the green light for a caper so wacky it can only have been inspired by his son watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes. They need to pull this off quickly. The Iranians are closing in on the folks hiding out. They need this production to look legit. They need real Hollywood folks, names. Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman, perfect) is an old C.I.A. contact. And he drags in producer Lester Siegel, played with his usual profane relish by the great Alan Arkin.
Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio could have easily turned this far-fetched tale into a farce. And the Hollywood scenes are exactly that cynical, silly, downright giddy. Period-perfect rock songs litter the soundtrack, Rolls Royces dot the Hollywood hills and no Hollywood cliche bluffing down an agents asking price for a bad script titled Argo is too corny to revive.
Goodman ably plays the jaded old pro, full of cracks about a town filled with liars, frauds and no-talents. Arkin is the hard-nosed has-been who rolls up his sleeves and cooks up ways to build buzz, to make this seem like the real deal. (If Im doing a fake movie, its going to be a HIT!)
But Affleck never lets us lose sight of the circumstances surrounding all this fakery and tomfoolery. Newscasts of the day are the soundtrack to many scenes, and we see graphic depictions of the torture of hostages, the bickering and day-by-day terror and paranoia of those still in hiding.
Woven into that are scenes where we see cold-eyed revolutionaries, hunting for Americans and allies of the former Shah, and Iranian children, laboring to piece together snippets of photos that will allow them to identify the missing Americans.
Affleck plays this spy as utterly poker-faced, not raising his voice to convince others to join him on this risky endeavor, never strutting like a movie secret agent always wary, fearful, but ready to go all-in on the bet once hes made it.
And the actor behind the camera, the one who brilliantly sums up Iranian/ U.S. history? He isnt bad either.
Darned near perfect.