It's becoming easier to forgive Ben Affleck for his past career indiscretions. Daredevil, for instance, was so appalling that it became an inside joke for my friends and I during adolescence, while Gigli seemed to be an inside joke between the entire country for the better part of a year. But when it comes to writing and directing, Affleck is in a completely different zone. He's already won an Oscar for his joint effort with Matt Damon on the screenplay for Good Will Hunting, and I imagine he'll be getting attention from the Academy for his directorial efforts in Argo.
As for Affleck the actor, It turns out he’s not so bad when given solid material to work with. (He's just not good enough to overcome something that’s crappy from the start.) What better way to ensure he's picking the right films than to play a part in making them? For Argo, Affleck portrays Tony Mendez, a CIA specialist attempting to safely bring American citizens stuck in Iran back to the states. It’s a terrific role, and Affleck makes the most of it as an actor.
By now you know Argo is “based on a true story,” and the film does a fine job providing the audience with just enough background to get up to speed. In 1979, during the Iranian Revolution, the shah (Iran’s U.S.-backed leader) was overthrown and permitted entry into the States for safekeeping while ill with cancer. This only further angered Iranian militants, who stormed the American embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for weeks. Six Americans escaped the siege and went into hiding at the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). It was Mendez's job to extract them from Tehran before the Iranian militants realized they were missing, tracked them down and killed them.
Mendez’s cover to get in and out of the country? He assumes the identity of a Canadian-born Hollywood producer prospecting Middle Eastern countries in search of shooting locations for a Star Wars knockoff called Argo. The six hiding Americans will be given Canadian identities as members of the film crew before attempting to fly out of the country. Nobody thinks it's a good idea, but it's the only one that has even the slightest chance of working. "It's the best bad idea we have," Mendez's superior Jack O' Donnell (Bryan Cranston) tells a high-ranking U.S. official.
To make it work, they'll need the setup to look real. That's where Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman) come in. A producer and Oscar winning make-up artist, respectively, Siegel and Chambers handle everything on the Hollywood side of the operation. Still, it's a near impossible situation for Mendez, and when one of the would-be hostages (Joe Stafford) butts heads with Mendez and initially refuses to go along with the plan, as an audience we feel compassion for the guy rather than disdain. But the choice the Americans face is to either wait for their inevitable discovery and execution in Tehran, or to speed along the process by trying to escape, knowing they’ll probably be caught, but that at least there’s an improbable chance of survival.
How much (or little) you recall of the Iranian hostage crisis won’t make much difference in your enjoyment of Argo. Affleck handles the sensitive material from the director's chair with veteran poise and precision, building the tension as the story progresses. Argo is the rare film that only gets better after reaching the halfway point. The initial setup work done in Hollywood allows for some great comedic moments between Chambers and Siegel, but the serious business picks up once Mendez makes it to Tehran.
Affleck deserves further credit for how closely scenes in Argo resemble the historical events they’re based on. During the end credits we see iconic images captured during the revolution and hostage crisis compared to similar moments in the film. We also see the astounding similarities between the actors and their real life counterparts.
Argo is a feel-good movie that still manages to deal with heavy-handed material, and it stands as one of the better films of the year. Affleck is rightfully making a name for himself again, this time more as a director than an actor. Good career choice, Ben.