I must admit to thinking of Ben Affleck as a bit of a flake before he wrote the screenplay and directed Gone Baby Gone (2007) and followed up with The Town (2010).
Before this, I felt a bit sorry for him as Matt Damon, his friend and co-creator of Good Will Hunting (1997), took his career to higher and higher heights.
Good Will Hunting launched their careers but Affleck seems to have got a bit lost on the way. Role choice probably had something to do with it but it wasn’t until he returned to writing and began directing his own work that he has emerged as a serious film maker.
Reading his filmography, you can sense a trajectory of rebuilding confidence. He wrote the screenplay, from a novel by Denis Lehane, of Gone Baby Gone and directed his brother, Casey, in one of the lead roles. It wasn’t as good as Clint Eastwood’s take on a Lehane novel, Mystic River, but it went damn close.
Then he wrote the original story and directed The Town, again like Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone, set in the gritty neighbourhoods of Boston. In quality heist movie The Town, Affleck had the confidence to direct himself in the lead, playing a criminal who has a love affair with a hostage he and his gang release soon after robbing a bank (it’s complicated, so best you see it).
Last year he bobbed up with Argo – about hostages of a far-more serious nature – and again wrote the screenplay and directed himself in the lead. Similarly, to his previous two directorial efforts, tension and suspense are well portrayed without the need for too many fireworks and car chases.
In late 1979 the United States of America was gripped by the Iranian hostage crisis, where 52 men and women from the US embassy in Tehran were taken hostage after the compound was over-run by revolutionary forces. They were held captive for more than a year.
The overthrow of the embassy is brilliantly captured, first with newsreel footage, then re-enactments, showing the fear and mayhem within the building and the hysterical behaviour of mob anger outside the gates. Some of the embassy staff escapes to the Canadian embassy but they cannot stay there forever and need to be got out. How?
Argo tells ‘how’ and grips the viewer intensely as the tale is told. The title emanates from the film within a film as Argo is the vehicle by which the six escapees can be got out.
Affleck’s Tony Mendez sources out fellow-CIA operative and Hollywood makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman), who floats the idea to create a bogus film and bring the escapees out as a Canadian film crew, supposedly searching locations in the Iranian desert. The two need an ideas man and veteran producer Lester Siegel (a superb turn by Alan Arkin) is brought on board.
The workings of this idea and then getting it approved by the CIA and eventually the US president kills vital time but eventually, the storyboards, trades ads and cast interviews for a Star Wars-like film, Argo, are created to provide a believable background.
Fact is stranger than fiction. This happened.
Meanwhile in Tehran an army of children and women are recompiling thousands of shredded documents from the embassy to be able to identify who are the missing staff members. The tension is palpable.
As often happens at the conclusion of films like this, photos of the real players in this thriller are shown and Affleck’s team deserves special praise for the likenesses they have created and the recapturing of late 70s fashion in what the characters wear.
Affleck, perhaps preserving his vanity, eschews the real Mendoza’s moustache.
Argo isn’t great but Argo is good and the multi-talented Affleck has become a force to be reckoned with in US movies.
FOOTNOTE: Apparently, Jack Nicholson bobbed up twice as an extra. I missed him completely so thanks to my daughter, Hannah, for pointing out this sidelight.
FURTHER FOOTNOTE: Brickbat Hannah, I watched Argo again another time. Jack ain’t in it.