Ben Affleck has come a long way since the early 2000s when he starred in an array of flops such as Daredevil, Jersey Girl and Gigli.
In 2007, Affleck moved into the director’s chair with the critically acclaimed adaption of Gone Baby Gone. He continued this trend of crafting heavily lauded movies with 2010’s The Town.
In 2012, Affleck shows his greatest control behind the camera yet, with the political thriller Argo. Combining humor, tension and real-life events, Argo is a taut, emotionally resonant piece of filmmaking that pulls at our heartstrings while perpetually threatening to completely sever them.
Argo is based on the true story of a secret CIA operation to rescue Americans from a politically unstable Iran. During the Iranian Revolution of 1979, increasingly frustrated Iranians storm the American embassy and take all employees hostage. Six manage to slip away and secretly take refuge in the Canadian embassy.
While the more than 50 hostages still trapped in the American embassy are impossible to rescue without storming the gates and threatening an all-out war, these six Americans are simply enclosed in the confines of the Iranian border. The CIA is desperate to get them out but has no idea how to do it. That’s when it brings in specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) who comes up with an idea while watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
Mendez proposes that the six Americans pretend to be a Canadian film crew looking for exotic venues to shoot a sci-fi epic. Since these types of movies often take place in aesthetically foreign settings, the idea doesn’t seem too far-fetched. The plan eventually gets the green light and provides Argo with a comical examination of Hollywood and filmmaking.
In order to make fake film production convincing, Mendez enlists the help of Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) as well as producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Goodman and Arkin have fun playing prominent members of Hollywood and play their roles for laughs. Their characters give the film a break from the nonstop tension in Iran, allowing it to breathe.
While the Hollywood scenes are lighthearted, the bulk of the film takes place in the revolutionizing Iran. Affleck plays up the tension between the Iranians and the Americans by constantly emphasizing the idea that, at any point, their plan could fail.
There are many close calls – none of which are manipulative; the film is so expertly made that every moment feels earned and fully realized – that it is advised you bring a change of clothes with you to the theater. You’ll probably sweat through them.
The tension between the Iranians and Americans may be the genesis of the film’s suspense, but what elevates the movie even further is the Affleck’s humanizing portrait of the Iranian Revolution. He takes the time to fully delineate the revolution and explain exactly why Iran is at this point of frustration.
While taking someone hostage is obviously a violation of human rights, the Iranians never come across as sadistic or unreasonable. Just like the trapped Americans, all they want is justice and peace.
This balancing act of rooting for the Americans but emotionally responding to the Iranians is the heart of the film and why it’s successful. The sentiment is so palpable that it actually overtakes the film’s characters.
So much focus is put into playing up the film’s suspenseful moments that there isn’t time to care for the characters. By the end of the movie, the Americans remain nameless faces that simply exist to propel the story forward.
Still, Argo is a unique film that works on many levels. It has a propulsive energy not seen in most contemporary thrillers, and doesn’t attempt to simplify the complicated tensions between different societies. Combining entertainment with heavy political drama, Argo succeeds as a thought-provoking thriller that is well worth your time.