What a director does to follow up their first major success is fascinating. Some cash in by becoming a director for hire at the studio level like Justin Lin, who made Better Luck Tomorrow and then cashed in on it with Fast and the Furious sequels. Others have shown that all they had was one brilliant film in them. Ben Affleck found success with his first film, Gone Baby Gone and then raised the bar further with The Town. Now his third film arrives into theatres, also doubling a good barometer for the long term ceiling of his career.
Plenty of directors have one great film in them. A handful of directors have two great works in them and that’s it. If Argo is a barometer for what lurks ahead then Affleck could have a career as potentially the best director of his generation. Argo is perhaps the best film of 2012 and a clear statement from Affleck that his directorial career is moving upward.
Argo, based loosely and in part off the Wired article “The Great Escape” by Joshua Bearman, follows the true life story of how the CIA used a fake movie to rescue six hostages from Iran during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. While most of the people who worked at the American Embassy, which had been overthrown and taken over to international chagrin following the Shah’s removal from power, were captured and held hostage six people managed to escape. They would find refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence, hiding underneath his floorboards, as the CIA had to come up with a plan to get them out. They were highly wanted by the new Iranian government.
Life can be stranger than fiction sometimes and in this case CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) posed as a producer of a Canadian film crew to rescue the six without the Iranians being none the wiser.
What makes Argo special? On the surface this is just an old fashioned spy thriller with political overtones that just happened to actually be true, the ending known beforehand because of its historical accuracy. It’s in how Affleck develops the film, slowly but surely, that it becomes an absolute nail-biter. While he may have changed some things for dramatic purposes, as all “based on a true story” type of films tend to do, what he’s done is crafted a brilliant spy thriller that also doubles as the tale of a man trying to balance out his life. And it all hinges on the opening moment; without it the film falls flat and can never recover.
From the beginning Affleck has designed this to rival the opening of The Town in breadth and substance. As the protests outside the American Embassy get more aggressive there’s an ominous tone to it. We get the view from the inside, safe and almost insulated from most of it, and then Affleck uses a hand held camera outside to give us an insight into the protests. We can feel the dread of those inside and then see how much worse it really could be for them once we get outside the walls of the Embassy. Throw in a beautiful crane tracking shot to give us the sheer size of it all and this opening moment, so crucial to establishing the climate of the film later on, gives us the scope of what’s happening.
It goes from feeling that something bad will happen in the next minutes (despite us knowing the story going in) to knowing something bad is going to happen. There’s a real sense of fear that’s developed that makes the rush to escape the embassy, and into the unsafe streets of Tehran, that much more engaging. The danger is palpable and spine-tingling, despite us knowing what’s eventually going to happen. It’s crucial and without it the film doesn’t work.
Without a brilliant opening moment to establish the real danger everyone was facing Argo would fall flat. The key to any rescue-centered is establishing that there are deadly consequences for the hostages. Anything less and it’s just a quirky action comedy instead of a white knuckle thriller. This opening scene, carefully crafted, gives us everything that fuels the rest of the film. From the idiotic ideas given up from the State Department to the one that actually worked it all means nothing without establishing the clear and present danger involved. Argo has to establish that early or else everything that follows doesn’t mean as much.
It’s been interesting to see how Affleck has developed as a director in the three films and Argo follows Gone Baby Gone and The Town in that they’re more director-oriented films as opposed to acting-oriented films. There’s enough good acting to go around but Affleck has crafted this tight as a thriller first. This is a film with a slick, compact story with nothing that doesn’t need to be included in there. In many ways this feels like a Michael Mann film; there is an emphasis on story over flashy acting, et al, and Affleck has cast the film accordingly. There is a ton of talent involved but there isn’t a lot of flash to his cast. Affleck has cast the film with an emphasis on character actors who blend in more than resume; it allows the viewer to better engage the story than play “point out the movie star” like in so many ensemble films.
Affleck may have scored a hit with his two earlier films, and plenty of critical accolades, and Argo continues his streak of quality films. Unlike his other two, though, Argo is a step better in that it perhaps is the best film of 2012.
Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Chris Terrios based off “The Great Escape” from Wired Magazine by Joshuah Bearman and “The Master of Disguise” by Antonio J. Mendez
Notable Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Kyle Chandler, Victor Garber