Argo review: Ben Affleck completes the directorial trifecta
I’ll admit that I was one of those people who thought Ben Affleck’s career in film peaked with his
alleged co-writing of Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon in 1997. He had some good moments with director Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Dogma), but he also found himself mired in mediocrity (Armageddon, The Sum of All Fears) and straight-up garbage (Gigli, Paycheck, Daredevil…I’m sorry I had to remind you of these pieces of crap films) through the late ’90s and early-mid 2000s.
Then, however, following an acclaimed performance in Hollywoodland, Affleck made his directorial debut with 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Affleck stepped out of the spotlight for this one, with his brother Casey taking on the lead role in a film that was gritty, dramatic, full of twists, and brilliantly acted throughout.
Three years later, Affleck proved that Gone Baby Gone was no fluke, directing the crime thriller The Town. This time, Affleck stepped back into the spotlight as the film’s primary character in addition to directing. At this point, it became apparent that perhaps Affleck had found his niche in Hollywood, which is why I was so excited when I first heard about and saw previews for Argo.
Argo is a thriller about the rescue of six United States diplomats who had taken cover in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. Tony Mendez (Affleck) of the CIA is consulted by the U.S. State Department for his thoughts on how to get these six Americans out of their dangerous predicament in Iran. After dismissing a series of ideas about how to accomplish this, Mendez proposes the ludicrous idea masquerading as a filmmaker, with the six American diplomats serving as his supposed film crew. Mendez has a contact in Hollywood — make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) — with whom he gets in touch to get the ball rolling on this idea.
Goodman and Alan Arkin (who plays a film producer who gets looped into the plan) provide an element largely unseen in Affleck’s previous directorial work: comedy. I almost want to categorize this film as a comedy-thriller, but then I’m afraid people will think of something Quentin-Tarantino-esque — where comedy and thrills come simultaneously — and that’s not what Argo is. For every comedic stretch of the film, there is a scene conveying the turmoil in Iran, reminding the audience of the seriousness of the situation. However, one could also look at this the other way around, in that the hilarious Hollywood-related scenes serve as comic relief to the aforementioned seriousness. Either way, Affleck easily could have gotten lost in this approach and given us an unbalanced, disjointed, directionless effort. Instead, though, by keeping these elements mostly separated but never losing sight of each one’s importance to the story, he created a film that was consistently entertaining and intelligent—a balance that is not struck often enough in film anymore (Michael Bay, anyone?).
Affleck was also solid in his role as Mendez, but was outshone by the performances of Goodman, Arkin, Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston (who played Mendez’s stern, short-tempered, but certainly not soulless supervisor, Jack O’Donnell), and, of course, his own job of directing the film. Gone Baby Gone gave us a hint of it, The Town reinforced it, and now Argo has confirmed it—Ben Affleck is one of the best directors in Hollywood today. About five years ago I never thought I’d be saying that, but there is simply no denying it anymore. What makes Argo even more impressive and exciting is that, as mentioned, Affleck effectively infused a new element—comedy—into his work, and not at the detriment of more thrilling and serious components. Hopefully this is the sign of more wide-ranging, high quality directorial efforts from him in the near future. As for now, though, expect Argo to be a major part of the Oscar discussion over the next few months.
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