Fri 12 Oct 2012
If there was one criticism of Ben Affleck’s short directorial career, it’s been the geographic setting of his films. There was still some doubt as to whether he’d be able to handle material far outside the confines of South Boston. With “Argo”, he’s done just that and is cementing himself as one of the premier American directors of his generation.
His latest film is based on the true story of the attempt to rescue American civil service employees hiding out in Iran after the fall of the US Embassy. As one can gleam from the trailer, the idea is to use the cover of a fake movie production-scouting trip to get everyone out of the country before they’re captured and/or executed. This operation was declassified by Bill Clinton during his tenure as President and so it’s possible a number of people know what happened; it’s also possible many do not. As such, I won’t say much more about the plot – it’s a suspense thriller dealing with real events and you’re either enticed by the promos (which include perhaps the best cut trailer of 2012) or you don’t find movies of this genre appealing.
For those still interested, and especially for anyone with an eye towards the upcoming awards season, this is a film you’re going to want to watch. It’s built for that race but it’s done so due to its integrity and excellence, not simply like so much of the Oscar-bait that will start popping up in the coming weeks. Affleck has now made three movies in a row (beginning with “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”) that understand how why cinema is the product of telling a good story. Yes, you also need the acting, production design, cinematography, etc., etc. to be of a certain caliber but all the technical wizardry and powerful performances in the world can’t make up for lackluster storytelling.
There are a few setups, mostly towards the end, that feel like over-dramatized fiction brought in because that’s what you do when you’re making a movie but for the most part, Affleck did a wonderful job of balancing the perspectives in the film. Dealing with cultural relations between Iran and the U.S. is a tricky thing so the film makes sure to present both sides; highlighting good and bad elements of both Iranian and American reactions to a tumultuous era. Another very helpful and well-handled aspect of production is the opening of the film, which succinctly brings the audience up to speed on the geo-politics; so don’t feel as if you need a doctorate in foreign studies to get what’s at stake.
Buoying the script and Affleck’s excellent direction are the acting performances. While I personally would have liked to keep Affleck behind the camera (perhaps his inclusion had more to do with ensuring financing), he does deliver a high quality performance. Surrounding him are a plethora of accomplished actors (John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Clea Duvall, Scoot McNairy, & Victor Garber to name a few) who all bring a tremendous sense of sincerity to their roles. Also, aside from Affleck, most of them bear remarkable resemblances to their real-life counterparts which is a nice feature shown during the credits (so don’t rush out to the car once all those words start scrolling up the screen).
It’d be unfathomable for “Argo” not to factor into the more lauded films of 2012 and it’s only because of some minor issues related to Affleck being in front of the camera and a few elements feeling like rah-rah over-dramatizations that this dips away from perfection and gets a 4.5 out of 5. Obviously, that’s still high praise and it’s well-deserved. If more of the heavy hitters slated to come out before January rolls around come close to this level, it will be a very exciting time for movie audiences and make up for what has so far been a pretty underwhelming cinematic year.