Ben Affleck has clearly matured and grown as both an actor and filmmaker. At one time he was known more for such things as dating Jennifer Lopez and churning out a steady stream of mostly lackluster movies. ("Gigli" anyone?) But during the last few years, the married father has been far more selective about his projects. He demonstrated great promise as a director with the movies "The Town" and "Gone Baby Gone." Now with "Argo," he's firing on all cylinders as both a filmmaker and actor. He did get a little help from George Clooney, whose company produced the film and who originally wanted play the role that Affleck wound up taking.
The movie tells the story of a lesser-know aspect of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, when six Americans managed to escape during the storming of the United States embassy in Tehran. That take-over is depicted in a heart-pounding sequence at the start of the film, as staffers inside the building rush to destroy secret documents while the mob breaks in to the building. (Most of the film's Tehran scenes were actually shot in the more friendly country of Turkey)
While 52 of their colleagues are taken hostage, the other six employees find refugee at the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, played by Victor Garber. The Canadians hide the six while the two governments try and decide what to do next.
Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, a so-called "exfiltration expert" whose specialty is getting people out of hostile environments. His plan is to convince the Iranians that the six are part of a Canadian movie crew who are in Tehran to scout locations for a fictional Hollywood science-fiction film. For advice, he turns to a veteran make-up artist who has helped the CIA in the past. (Played with deadpan skill by John Goodman.) They realize they need to set-up an elaborate cover story that will withstand any Iranian scrutiny so they enlist an old time producer played magnificently by Alan Arkin. "If I'm gonna make a fake movie, than I'm gonna make a fake hit," exclaims Arkin as they search for the right script that they can tell the world they are "producing."
The contrast between the subtle CIA maneuvering and the in-your-face Hollywood deal-making gives the movie some hilarious tension-releasing moments. One of the best is when Arkin goes to a meeting to get the rights to the sci-fi script (called "Argo") and delivers a tour de force of matching insults with an agent played by the wonderful Richard Kind from "Spin City."
The script by Chris Terrio (his first produced screenplay) has a number of great lines, with some of the best delivered by Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad") who plays one of the CIA bosses. The story does play a little loose with the facts. The major role that the Canadians played, along with the risks their embassy staffers took has been downplayed considerably. Some audience members were so outraged after the film screened at the Toronto Film Festival that Affleck changed a graphic at the end to give the Canadians more of the credit they deserved.
The climax of the movie involving the team's journey from the embassy, to the Tehran Airport, to their getaway aircraft has also been dramatized, but frankly, it's still one of the most exciting, nail-biting scenes in recent memory. The tension builds to an almost unbearable level as the Americans make their way through the many levels of Iranian airport security. The screening I went to had the audience at the edge of their seats and cheering wildly at the end of the film. One note: Stick around for the credits. The images of the actual people and places involved are mesmerizing.
With "Argo," Ben Affleck has arrived as a filmmaker. This movie will be a solid and well-deserved contender come Oscar time.