“Directed by Ben Affleck”. At one time, before the California-born actor started his endeavours behind the camera, those words would have been treated with suspicion. Sure, together with Matt Damon, Affleck had cut his teeth putting pen to paper for the movies, but this was followed by some ill-advised movie choices (Pearl Harbor, Gigli). Come Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s debut directorial effort, few had high expectations. This may explain some of the high praise that movie received – it’s a fine, workmanlike movie, as is it’s follow-up The Town. And yet… the impression given was of a man making movies to another man’s tune – namely Clint Eastwood’s. GBG and The Town are the most Eastwood-y movies Eastwood never made. And both of them feel like lesser takes on The Man With No Name’s more assured works.
And now Argo. Based on the true story of how six (for want of a better term) political prisoners were smuggled out of tumultuous Tehran under the false pretense of being a sci-fi movie crew, it would be tempting to chalk this one up to more-of-the-same before even seeing it. You can practically imagine the chilly lighting, overly serious tone and strong-if-unremarkable performances. Likewise, cue the heavy-handed musical score and US banner waving. We’ve seen it all before.
Thankfully however, Argo sees Affleck taking the good experience already under his belt and finally flying with it. My presumptions as highlighted above are largely unfounded. Argo is a warm, rich, comedic delight. Far from the dour, melodramatic also-ran I was expecting as I took my cinema seat. The first evidence of this all-important glint in the eye comes as soon as the Warner Bros logo appears – the usual contemporary shield replaced with its 70’s counterpart. It’s a knowing wink to the present flush of nostalgia in the movies, and it is one that continues through the film. Would a po-faced Jack Ryan-esque Clancy-clone fill in its background via a slew of comic-book-style panels? You’d think not.
With its grainy mix of archive footage and dramatic reconstruction, the opening montage calls to mind Steven Spielberg’s Munich, however once the scene-setting is in place and we know who’s who both in Iran, Washington and Tinseltown, Argo sets itself into a fine groove, artfully balancing the serious subject matter with some well-placed digs at the Hollywood system. The film is at it’s most enjoyable as Tony Mendez (a bearded Ben Affleck) traverses Hollywood egos in order to set his cover story in place. The tongue-in-cheek fish-out-of-water story Get Shorty springs to mind.
One might expect this to jar with the more conventionally suspenseful scenes in Iran, as the Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy face the grim possibilities in front of them, and risk their lives for a foolhardy plan. However the two sides of Argo complement one another. Affleck is obviously keenly aware of this, as even the film stock quality changes; there’s an atmospheric grain to the Tehran scenes contrasted with the stark high-definition of the United States.
And whilst one might roll one’s eyes at Affleck self-casting again (and shoe-horning in a shirtless moment again), he has an embarrassment of riches lined up to support him. Beside the notable heavyweight presence of John Goodman, Bryan Cranston (doing well for himself these days, thank you very much) and Alan Arkin, the plethora of superb character actors in minor roles is extraordinary. Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek (officially in everything), Bob Gunton, Richard Kind… the list is quite frankly ridiculous. But pick from the best and the best is what you’ll get. As far as the cast are concerned, there’s not a bum note. Back that up with a punchy script heavy on smart one-liners, and you’re sorted.
All of which makes Argo, well… fun. This is political thriller redressed as suspense romp. The story has clearly been padded, especially in the last act, where tension is quite commonly conjured out of little, but it works. As an audience member, we’re happy to play along, because it’s entertaining. Affleck is playing showman here, and he’s doing it rather well.
A couple of things feel slightly off – a subplot involving Mendez’s detachment from his family never really plays as convincingly or as wholeheartedly as it could, and as such feels extraneous, and indeed Mendez himself is drawn as little more than a chain-smoking fix-it man, but even in this Affleck is fine. He is entirely likeable as the guy openly trying to do the right thing.
So.. good news all round, really. Nobody’s likely to go home calling Argo their new favourite movie, but it’s a well-rounded success story, as chuckle-worthy as it is compelling. It’s bright, well-paced and satisfying, and features some of the most glorious fashion crimes of recent mainstream cinema history. God bless 1980. And if in all of this Affleck still lacks a distinct voice as a director, it’s good to see he’s stopped openly aping his peers. From here on, “Directed by Ben Affleck” is a phrase that I won’t be so presumptuous about.