Affleck works both sides of the camera
October 18, 2012
“Argo,” based on a true story, is well-timed to coincide with current events unfolding in the Middle East. The film’s opening is a primer in recent Persian history. In 1979, increasing unrest causes Iran’s Shah (the Persian word for king) to flee. Anti-American sentiment, for our friendship with the Shah, is running high when Muslim leader, Ayatollah Khomeni, is installed as that nation’s new leader. Throughout the film, his frowning portrait is an omnipresent, disapproving reminder of America’s sins.
These events are sympathetically narrated in a Persian female’s voice, but the film’s tenor changes when, angered by the Shah’s admittance to the U.S. for cancer treatement, rioters attack the U.S. Embassy in Iran’s capital, Tehran. We experience this harrowing attack from the perspective of embassy workers scrambling to destroy sensitive documents with little thought for their own safety.
The Embassy staff is taken captive, leaving President Jimmy Carter’s administration to grapple with a terrible situation. Meanwhile, six U.S. State Department employees (working out of a building situated on the U.S. Embassy compound) escape capture and make their way to the Canadian Ambassador’s home. This film documents our efforts to bring those six safely back to the U.S..
Ben Affleck directs this adaptation of the book “The Master of Disguise.” Written by Antonio J. Mendez. The author Affleck portrays is an ex-Central Intelligence Agency officer whose expertise was exfiltration, defined as removing personnel, by stealth or deception, from areas under enemy control. His plan, to cast the six as part of a Canadian filmmaking team, was an improbable notion termed “Our best bad idea” by Mendez’s supervisor, Jack O’Donnell, played by Bryan Cranston, using his intensity to ramp up the tension while alternately letting us see him sweat, then providing whiffs of amusement.
As portrayed by Affleck, Mendez maintains a level of composure and humanity that are ideal in a clandestine operative under extreme duress. Mendez’s plan is further humanized by cantankerous Hollywood producer Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, who humorously insists, “If I’m gonna make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit.” John Goodman climbs aboard as Siegel’s pal, award-winning makeup artist John Chambers. Together they embody the hope and cynicism extended to any Hollywood project, including this phony one.
One challenge is to represent the fakery, based on a tacky science fiction script set in the Middle East, as the next Western blockbuster. To its credit, the operation even takes out an under-development movie advertisement in a well-known industry rag.
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At two hours, the film whizzes by, partly due to the engrossing depiction of Mendez’s plan, and partly because the story rarely eases up on its edge-of-your-seat tension. Smaller, but excellent performances by Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishe, as the six escapees, and by Victor Garber as Canada’s Ambassador, contribute to the film’s air of credibility.
If his last few films are an indication, Ben Affleck is the Robert Redford of his generation. Storybook handsome, Affleck is an extremely smart guy, excelling behind the camera despite sometimes failing in front of it. In addition to “Argo,” during the past five years Affleck has directed “Gone Baby Gone,” and “The Town,” fine works that demonstrate his ability to convey the big picture.
“Argo” is arguably the best of Affleck’s efforts, released at the beginning of a cycle timed for “Oscar Consideration.” It’s hard to imagine a production more worthy of receiving the Best Picture award.