Hollywood Gets Political, But in a Very Different Way

Review of Ben Affleck’s “Argo”

BY VINCENT ABBATECOLA

Ben Affleck makes a meteoric return as a director for his tension-drenched thriller, “Argo,” based on Antonio Mendez’s true-to-life book “Master of Disguise” and Joshuah Bearman’s Wired magazine article “The Great Escape.” He tells the true story of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, and builds upon relentless suspense as the danger for the main characters becomes more life-threatening. With this only being his third feature as a director, he hasn’t just given audiences one of the best movies of the year, but has already become one of the most gifted filmmakers of today.

During the 1979 Iranian Revolution, a group of revolutionaries breaks into the U.S. embassy in Tehran in retaliation for the support the country gives to their recently deposed Shah. While many of the staff is taken as hostages, six are able to escape and find refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Back in the U.S., CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to review the plans to save the six hostages, but sees that they are flawed.

After he watches “Battle of the Planet of the Apes on TV,” he hatches an idea: go into Tehran and pose with the hostages as a Canadian film crew that is scouting the area for exotic locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo. After the CIA agrees to it, Tony will need all the resources and support he can get from his job and from Hollywood in order to get the hostages home alive.

Affleck’s character has a pinpoint focus of what he must do to accomplish his mission. Even though he has some personal issues with being away from his family because he and his spouse are taking a break, there isn’t one spot in the film where Affleck’s character wallows in a woe-is-me mentality. He concentrates on his mission with a towering willpower to go and follow through with his task. Despite his determination to do what he can for the hostages, Tony doesn’t make overblown speeches about what is the right thing to do in the hostage situation. It’s an understated performance, with Tony acting composed in each scene, trying to figure out how to go about each step in the rescue. This is Affleck’s best performance to date.

One thing that’s always impressive about film is how archival footage can be found and used to strengthen the storytelling. News footage is employed extensively throughout Argo. By having the footage embedded in the film, the audience is able to feel closer to the events. When viewing this footage, it provides the sense of watching the news from a television at home, but the audience is also watching the actual planning and events of the rescue as they unfold, something they couldn’t have done when all of this happened when it did.

Ben Affleck is a master of creating suspenseful scenarios in his films such as “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town.” For “Argo,” he achieves a remarkable feat: being able to instill near-unbearable anxiety into the story, even though the viewer already knows the outcome. There are two particular scenes that come to mind: one is where his character must drive the group of hostages in a van through a group of protesters, and the other involves the group traversing through a bazaar as they pretend to be scouting for filming locations.

Both scenes emit a potent sense of claustrophobia. The van scene mostly has the camera inside the vehicle as the hostages are looking out the windows while trying not to look terrified as the protesters surround them. The scene in the bazaar has the audience even more anxious as it watches the hostages and Mendez weaving through the densely populated streets, and what happens in this scene really gets the heart racing.

With just a three-movie history as a director, Affleck has made a superb impression on cinema. He has stayed consistent with his excellence in storytelling, and is reliable in bringing audiences films that achieve on placing viewers as close to edge as possible as they wait for the many high-tension situations to unfold. This film is his greatest success in filmmaking so far, and he gets better each time. Put him in the director’s chair, and Affleck will give us something worth raving about. In this case, it’s the utterly stimulating Argo.

Final grade: A