Whether you like it or loathe it, Argo is most certainly the zeitgeist movie of 2012. A year that has seen dramatic changes to the face of democracy in the middle east, it voluntarily speaks for the Western world with a typically Hollywood premise. A “declassified true story” from 1979, its the retelling secret mission between the CIA and the Canadian government to extract and save six American diplomats trapped in revolutionary Iran. It’s the kind of yanky-doodle tale which would usually be wince-inducing. But, under Affleck’s “hands-dirty” direction, this surprising blockbuster smash hit is intelligent, funny and unmissable.
With no simple way of extraditing the captive Americans, the American government calls in Tony Mendez (Affleck) to come up with some audacious master plan. After some back and forth discussion with his CIA boss Jack (Bryan Cranston), Mendez comes up with “the best bad idea” possible – to pose as the head of a Canadian film studio, with the exiled Americans in-hiding as the film crew scouring across Iran for locations to shoot a Star Wars rip-off called “Argo”. It’s risky, but Mendez gives the alibi some clout by recruiting Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to put their name behind the fake-movie’s marketing campaign.
A drop-out from a Middle Eastern Affairs course at University some twenty years back, it’s no wonder that Affleck has some handle on the subject. What is quite remarkable is how he is able to use the real-life CIA case as the basis for the narrative, but never feel creatively bound by it.
Written with incisiveness by newcomer Chris Terrio, it’s the first of Affleck’s three films where he doesn’t take a writing credit, leaving him to juggle acting and directing duties. Affleck maintains a retro aesthetic with great fluidity blending humour with breathtaking tension, whilst never letting the sizeable cast revert to parody. With Rodrigo Prieto’s grimy cinematography and the use démodé jump-cuts – which could someday become Affleck’s trademark – it’s more pact than the ruminative Gone Baby Gone and protracted The Town, and definitely illustrates that the Bostonian is maturing as a filmmaker.
Even if it’s his most tautly crafted, Affleck’s appearance on-screen as leading man Ben Mendes is somewhat jarring. Throughout his patchy acting career, I’ve never considered him as leading man territory, much preferring his zany roles in Kevin Smith movies as an ensemble member. With such an astonishing supporting cast here, particularly Bryan Cranston as the paternal CIA agent, plus John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the joshing Hollywood duo, Affleck’s acting ability is tested, and Mendez ends up feeling a little stoic and monotonous by the film’s nail-biting end.
For the most part, Argo is a genre-spanning triumph. A melange of scathing political satire, hollywood farce, broody drama and tense thriller. I could throw around comparisons to Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann, Sidney Lumet and Paul Greengrass but, to his credit, Affleck is playing in a league of his own.