Based on real-life events and the improbable story of the rescue of on-the-run US embassy workers in Iran in the late-1970s, Argo stars and is directed by Ben Affleck and co-produced by George Clooney. In many ways Affleck’s acting career has a similar trajectory to Clooney’s and it’s interesting to see their directorial careers continue this similarity. Both started as heartthrob characters, who then moved into romantic comedies before running afoul of comic book adaptations. In Clooney’s case Batman and Robin, in Affleck’s; Daredevil. They would then each go on a bad critical and commercial run as actors before rising like a phoenix from the ashes in the role of director.
Set in the late 1970s during the uprising and change of leadership in Iran, Argo follows CIA extraction expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) who is tasked by superior Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) to come up with a plan to rescue six trapped US embassy workers in Tehran. Having eliminated all other obvious plans, Mendez enlists the help of Hollywood prosthetic expert John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a fake science fiction film called Argo, which would allow them access to the city under the guise of doing a location shoot and hopefully allow them to rescue the trapped workers.
Affleck’s first directorial feature, was the gritty urban drama The Town, which alerted audiences to the obvious talent that had been forgotten during a horrible run of films. His second feature, the award-friendly Argo, takes a real life story, populates it with good character actors and lets the narrative play out. In many ways it’s a simple job for a director, so the fact that Affleck does so well is even greater praise. There is an engaging simplicity to the shot selection and the blending of real footage with constructed is both effective and pleasing. Even the opening credits transport the audience back toward the tail end of the 1970s with dated production and studio logos as well as a grained effect on the filming.
The acting ensemble is solid throughout, with Goodman and Arkin providing the comic highlights. In fact, the biggest issue with Argo is actually in its lead performance. Affleck, while clearly on the road to becoming an accomplished director, still lacks a certain charm or gravitas to his roles. In Argo, Tony Mendez is a silent, confident character who must remain calm while others around him lose their heads. In the most part Affleck is good, but for the times when he is discussing family the role requires an actor who can take it to another level, which Affleck seems incapable of reaching. It’s not a bad performance, far from it, but when surrounded by the albeit more two-dimensional characters who are given so much life, Mendez appears a little disinterested and lacking the obvious depth that he does have.
The only other area where Argo is somewhat problematic is the finale. With the setup as it is, it couldn’t help but be somewhat underwhelming. However it is further testament to Affleck’s sure-handed direction that this is forgivable, partly because he’s sticking to the truth of the story, and partly because he seems to appreciate that the best moments of Argo are in its setup. So with a stellar cast, some flashy, but substantial direction and a fantastic central narrative, Argo is a great next step on Affleck’s career path to being one of the best new directors in Hollywood. Here’s hoping he really goes for it in his next film, perhaps not casting himself as the lead, something that George Clooney should strongly consider too.