It was called “The Hollywood option” inside the Agency, and it went like this: Six American consulate workers had barely escaped the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, hiding in the home of the Canadian ambassador. In order to rescue them, the CIA needed to send in an operative (or “exfiltration” specialist) with a viable, believable cover story that could get them out. What he came up with was, in the words of his boss, “the best bad idea we have” — that the six Americans were a Canadian film crew, scouting locations for an upcoming science-fiction/adventure film in the Star Wars mold. It was titled Argo, which is also the title of Ben Affleck’s terrific new film about the operation.
It is a story both terrifying and ridiculous, the very real horror of the year-plus Iran hostage crisis intertwined with the silliness of Hollywood talent employing media manipulation to invent a film out of whole cloth. It’s a narrative that requires, tonally, the improbable crossing of Wag the Dog and Munich — consider the difficulty of doing both of those things at the same time, and then witness the ease with which director Affleck spins like a top from one to the next, within the same sequence, sometimes within the same frame. He begins with a dead serious (and dead-on convincing) dramatization of the taking of the embassy, properly establishing the serious stakes of the situation, but once his own character (of agent Tony Mendez) and the “Hollywood option” are introduced, the picture quickly shifts from fact-based drama to Tinseltown satire.
It’s a gamble, this section, but it works. The reason why may be something as simple as good old-fashioned comic relief; after the tension of that opening, and with an already-established ticking clock (shredded documents and pictures divulging the hiding Americans’ identities are being reassembled), we can use a bit of a breather. We welcome the wry, seen-it-all cynicism of John Goodman’s Hollywood pro and of Alan Arkin’s old school producer, who lend credibility to the CIA’s pretend space opera. It’s fun, as it always is, to watch the movies laugh at themselves, both here and in other, cosmetic touches like the vintage Saul Bass Warner Brothers logo that opens the picture, or the storyboard drawings that are cleverly used in its first sequence to fill in the history.
But Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio are also smart enough to know that a little of this goes a long way, and that there’s an important story to get to, so the satirical elements are mostly called up early on, as a detour; you can combine jazzy fun and serious stuff, but only up to a point. The film never loses its wit, but once his character lands in Iran, Affleck gets down to business — he creates a sense of menace and fear, spends just enough time with the hostages to establish the characters (and what they’re up against) without getting too deep in the weeds, and starts a slow, masterful build to their attempted extraction.
Even in this remarkable second act of his career, Affleck doesn’t really get credit for the skill of his acting. His performance here is direct and no-nonsense (witness his deft underplaying in the drilling and prep sequence), and that goes double for his filmmaking. He is primarily an actor’s director — everyone in the ensemble is good, particularly Arkin, Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Clea DuVall, and a terrific young actor named Scoot McNairy — but he’s doing some tricky stuff as a storyteller; the run-up to the climax finds the picture doing about four things at once, all of them with remarkable skill and precision, and the closing sequence is almost unbearably tense. His instincts occasionally fail him (Alexandre Desplat’s score pushes a few too many easy buttons, and there’s probably one action beat too many at the end), but he works in a fast, clipped style, a model of smooth craftsmanship. Each film he makes is just a little more ambitious than the last, a little more confident, and a little more impressive. A pattern has been established: every two years, Ben Affleck is apparently going to make a great American movie. This is his third. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
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It’s a very good week at the movies — aside from Argo, you’ve got Seven Psychopaths, Sinister, and Middle of Nowhere opening, all of which we talked about in our October Indie Preview. One that we hadn’t seen in time for that feature, but is worth recommending as well, is Smashed. There’s nothing terribly new about this story of an alcoholic who realizes her life is out of control and straightens out; we’ve seen it from Days of Wine and Roses to Clean and Sober to 28 Days. What makes this take fresh is the unique style (director James Ponsoldt tells it in flashes, moments not unlike the pieced-together memories of a hungover morning after), the specificity of the characters (they’re right at that almost-thirties point where, as our protagonist says, “all that things that used to be funny aren’t really funny anymore”), and the brilliance of the performances. A no-nonsense Octavia Spencer and the unflappable Nick Offerman are terrific as supportive AA friends, Aaron Paul brings weight and nuance to the role of the husband who can’t (and won’t) be changed, but the revelation is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the pretty ingenue of Scott Pilgrim and Grindhouse who makes this seemingly predictable character arc utterly wrenching. It’s out today in limited release; Argo is out wide.