Ben Affleck is closing in on the perfect thriller. “Argo” shows us how near the mark he has gotten in just three films.
Since stepping behind the camera to direct, Affleck has yet to make a movie that doesn’t pull us to the edge of our seats.
He may have showed his easy way with suspense and pathos, chases and humor with “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town.” But “Argo” has him operating on a whole new level.
This deft blend of mortal terror, personal and national humiliations and Hollywood chutzpah is one of the best pictures of the year.
“Argo” is based on a true story that took place during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81. Six Americans slipped through Iranian clutches and hid out in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. The U.S. State Department wanted to disguise them and have them ride out of the country on bicycles. But one C.I.A. agent had a better idea. Give ’em sunglasses, call them movie people and pass them off as Hollywood types on a “location scout” for a “Star Wars” ripoff, a sci-fi picture set in the desert.
It is “the best bad idea” the higher-ups (Philip Baker Hall, Bob Gunton) have in front of them. So Tony Mendez (Affleck) gets the green light for a caper so wacky it can only have been inspired by his son watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” They need to pull this off quickly. The Iranians are closing in on the folks hiding out. They need this production to look legit. They need “real” Hollywood folks, “names.” Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman, perfect) is an old C.I.A. contact. And he drags in producer Lester Siegel, played with his usual profane relish by the great Alan Arkin.
Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio could have easily turned this far-fetched tale into a farce. And the Hollywood scenes are exactly that — cynical, silly, downright giddy. Period-perfect rock songs litter the soundtrack, Rolls Royces dot the Hollywood hills and no Hollywood cliche — bluffing down an agent’s asking price for a bad script titled “Argo” — is too corny to revive.
Goodman ably plays the jaded old pro, full of cracks about a town filled with liars, frauds and no-talents. Arkin is the hard-nosed has-been who rolls up his sleeves and cooks up ways to build buzz, to make this seem like the real deal. (“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a HIT!” )
But Affleck never lets us lose sight of the circumstances surrounding all this fakery and tomfoolery. Newscasts of the day are the soundtrack to many scenes, and we see graphic depictions of the torture of hostages, the bickering and day-by-day terror and paranoia of those still in hiding (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Kerry Bishe and Scoot McNairy among them).
Woven into that are scenes where we see cold-eyed revolutionaries, hunting for Americans and allies of the former Shah, and Iranian children, laboring to piece together snippets of photos that will allow them to identify the missing Americans.
Detail after detail seems just right. The location scouts are so frightened that it takes effort for them to not cower and lower their eyes when they’re supposed to be looking, taking notes and photographs.
Affleck plays this spy as utterly poker-faced, not raising his voice to convince others to join him on this risky endeavor, never strutting like a “movie” secret agent — always wary, fearful, but ready to go all-in on the bet once he’s made it. It’s a canny, confident performance, playing straight man to Goodman, Arkin and a volcanic Bryan Cranston, his C.I.A. boss, and father confessor to the Americans he has to convince to trust him with their lives.
And the actor behind the camera, the one who brilliantly sums up Iranian/U.S. history and the awful day the embassy was overrun in 12 electrifying opening minutes, the one who keeps the clock ticking on this superb “ticking-clock thriller”? He isn’t bad either.
Darned near perfect.