Just when you thought Ben Affleck couldn’t top “The Town,” he went out and did just that.
Affleck’s third feature as a director, “Argo,” is not only well-written, but also superbly casted. Affleck leads a cast featuring Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Kyle Chandler.
The film is based on “The Master of Disguise,” the memoirs of Central Intelligence Agency “exfiltration” expert Antonio J. Mendez. The plot centers on Mendez (Affleck), who is sent to Iran in the midst of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.
Argo opens with storyboard-style graphics intermixed with video and pictures of the flight of the Shah of Iran to America and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran.
Affleck’s opening scene is breathtaking: A protestor stands on a balcony, holding a burning American flag. The camera pans to show a narrow street jammed with hundreds (if not thousands) of protestors trying to rush the United States Embassy.
The seizure of the embassy by the protestors is one of the most tense and memorable scenes in the film. Affleck captures the sheer terror and confusion of the workers as they struggle to shred thousands of pages of information and smash computers.
Mendez and the CIA get involved when it is revealed that six people escaped the embassy and are in hiding at the house of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).
Many “exfil” scenarios are discussed (including ones involving bicycles and English teachers). Finally, Mendez steps forward with what Cranston’s Jack O’ Donnell calls “the best worst idea [we] have:” a fake movie crew with a real script and studio backing.
Inspired by a re-run of “Planet of the Apes,” Mendez seeks out the help of the film’s makeup artist, John Chambers (Goodman), and veteran film producer Lester Siegel. From there, the movie takes off as a film about a fake science-fiction rip-off set in the Middle East.
The cast of hostages doesn’t feature headlining names, but the six main actors give a believable performance of how cabin fever in a foreign land can set in. Add in the intrigue of a less-than-trustworthy housekeeper, and it is easy to see how the group found Mendez’s plan less than desirable.
Affleck finds his niche in the dramatic scenes spread throughout the film. Simple shots, like a body hanging from a crane in a public square, evoke emotions foreign to Americans living under a democracy.
Visually, the film is striking. The production team does a flawless job of perfecting period-style costumes and behaviors down to the last cigarette. In addition, televisions in the background showing actual footage from the 444-day hostage crisis add a level of realism to the film.
“Argo” is not without flaws, however. Mendez’s memoirs mention the ordeal as “the Canadian Caper,” all but confirming that Affleck’s film does not give nearly enough credit to the Canadians behind the scenes.
That said, “Argo” is a lump-in-your-throat, can’t-wait-to-see-what happens next thriller with a strong finish. While I’m sure he will prove me wrong soon, this film is, by far, Ben Affleck’s most complete and Oscar-worthy film yet.