'Argo' shows Affleck's growing mastery of directing films

Bryan Cranston and Ben Affleck in "Argo."
October 21, 2012

Audiences love to hypothesize how or why certain films ever got made: Ego? Marketing strategy? Financial gain? Adam Sandler's pool cleaning bill? But it's safe to say seldom has a film received the green light in order to free Middle Eastern hostages. It's a premise that sounds too far-fetched for even Hollywood standards, but it's precisely the truth-based tale on which "Argo" is based.

"Argo" is the third directorial effort from Ben Affleck, and perhaps his most commercially polished yet. Based on the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, "Argo" enlightens us on a part of the drama that was not played out on the nightly news: six Americans managed to escape a seized U.S. Embassy in Tehran, found covert asylum in the Canadian ambassador's home and were ushered out in a most unorthodox fashion.

Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) is a CIA operative whose job it is to find opportunities in otherwise hopeless situations. Before he arrives on the scene, the best the agency could devise was getting the hostages bikes to pedal a few hundred miles across the border to safety. Mendez enlists the help of one of his contacts in the film industry (a special-effects artist played by John Goodman) to create a phony flick that would allow the escapees to pose as filmmakers on a simple location scout.

While Affleck dresses up the film in appropriate period attire (including the old-school Warner Bros. logo that opens the film), its heart is firmly in the ‘70s, when names like Friedkin, Scorsese and Lumet were cranking them out. That’s right. I said it. Affleck is fast proving himself to be in a directorial league with those powerhouses. Sure, he’s learned a thing or two from other directors over the years; for instance, the conclusion feels on par with Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” in which every conceivable second that ticks away pulses with life-threatening urgency.

What helps “Argo” connect is its focus on the humanity of its tale. That’s no small task for the director, as the cast with which he is working is huge. From the agency staff back in the office, to the hostages hidden in their safe house, to the high-level staffers in the White House, there’s a ton of story he’s packing into the flick. All of the actors seem as though they lived through their roles and are merely recounting them in front of the camera.

He brings just the right amount of humor amidst the tension, like occasionally letting the air out of a balloon that you can see is about to pop. Many of those moments are courtesy of Goodman and his producer buddy (played by Alan Arkin) who believe more in the plan for their faux film than they do the entire film industry in which they work.

If there is a weak link, it would be Affleck casting himself in the lead. Not known for his ability to carry heavy narrative, Affleck is particularly pensive here, which may be part of his character’s nature, but it would help the entertainment value to punch up the emotion if Mendez is chosen as the primary focus.

That is not enough to deter what is otherwise a superlative effort from all involved. It realizes that film is “escapism” (in the truest sense of the word, here), and Affleck masterfully clicks his stopwatch in the last act as we sit edging ever closer on the theater seats.

If a decade ago you had told me that Affleck and acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson (who recently released the comically confounding “The Master”) would both release films aiming for the Oscars and that Affleck’s would be the far superior film, I would have asked for a hit of what you were smoking.

Some snobs may argue otherwise, but I will take the precision of “Argo” over the pretension of “The Master” any day.

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