Say what you will about Ben Affleck as an actor or a tabloid celebrity, but as a director, he is emerging as one of the top craftsmen in his field.
Affleck is a standout on both sides of the camera in Argo, a riveting espionage thriller that works both for its glimpse into recent historical events (which still resonates in the contemporary political climate) and its ability to develop and sustain white-knuckle tension.
The film, based on a true story, is set against the backdrop of the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979, when a young CIA technical officer (Affleck) hatches an off-the-wall plan to free six American diplomats who are trapped amid a political uprising in Tehran.
His risky idea, which met with reluctant government approval, involved disguising the diplomats as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film. The CIA even hires a Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) and a makeup artist (John Goodman) to make the ruse more convincing.
Perhaps the best element of Argo is the way the film seamlessly transitions between the absurd and the dramatic, with the behind-the-scenes effort to find and develop the fake movie played almost as farce alongside the harrowing plight of the hostages and the imminent threat of an international incident. It’s even a goofy tribute to our neighbors from Canada.
The ensemble cast is terrific and the visual approach to period re-creation is ambitious and clever (thanks in part to the work of acclaimed cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto). Plus, Affleck keeps the pace moving quickly throughout. The film’s final hour is as taut and suspenseful as any film so far this year.
The screenplay by Chris Terrio (Heights) was adapted from a 2007 Wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman that detailed the story of Mendez and his heroism, the details of which were declassified by the American government in 1997.
It’s one of those stories that wouldn’t be credible if it weren’t true. And to the film’s credit, even when it embellishes certain details leading up to its climax, Affleck and his actors by that time have sold the audience on its authenticity. How appropriate.
Rated R, 120 minutes.