Ben Affleck (“The Town”) released his third directorial film, plunging those old enough to remember into nostalgia, while edifying others on the feuding nations and realities of the Iran Hostage Crisis during the Cold War. Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, a disheveled CIA agent with a shaggy haircut and a flippant backstory.
The film shifts between historical fiction and thrilling caper, with Affleck portraying a steely-eyed spy, a confident and reserved escapist. The film covers a touchy time in American history, as it centers on the Iran Hostage Crisis. Six embassy employees escape into the streets in hiding. Then in comes Tony Mendez, a seasoned operative of the CIA and the only one capable of saving lives in a time of public outcry.
The main premise of the film strikes interest immediately: Mendez must secretly promote and create a sci-fi film and smuggle out the escapees with fake Canadian passports purporting that they are a film crew scouting locations in Tehran. He succeeds with the help of a monster makeup expert and a washed up producer. Besides being thrillingly entertaining, it’s surprising to note the level of historical accuracy that went into the making of this film. The soundtrack is even a nostalgic throwback.
Much of this was meant to look and feel like a 1970s political thriller. Not only did Affleck think hard about the film’s progression, but also it’s texture, including using ’70s-style filming techniques when recreating scenes from real events, like a public hanging by crane and the organization of readings to the press. The historical framing and attention to detail were very specific — even the casting nailed the look of the characters. Some amazing choices included John Goodman (“ParaNorman”) as an Oscar winning makeup artist, Bryan Cranston (“Total Recall”) as CIA senior executive, and Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) as a hammy award-winning producer.
Though the premise may seem gimmicky, it never goes over the top. The film is far more about the fear of an entire country gripped in revolution and social unrest than it has anything to do with goofy sub-plots involving aliens and monsters. The violence that centers on the Iranian peoples’ revolt is chillingly cruel and horrific, while being vividly realistic.
The reason this film isn’t the best — or even one of the best films of the year — is because Affleck skews the truth by using false starts again and again. It’s not the facts that are being diverted, but instead the stakes of the film, heightened by situations that swell with the rise of Alexandre Desplat’s score. The tension keeps building to achingly uncomfortable levels, but it doesn’t grip you — it only heightens fear levels to an anticlimactic plateau. It doesn’t hurt the integrity of the story or diminish the courageous tactical planning of Mendez, the Canadian ambassador or the hostages’ predicament, but it does lose credibility to an already fantastical story.
The lesser characters are mostly flat and revolve throughout the plot without evolving past any vaguely interesting appeal. Arkin is certainly the most interesting, providing the same shock humor in this film as he did in “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Get Smart.” But Arkin isn’t the only comedic presence in this film. Dark humor permeates throughout, making for some edgier fare. More often than not, “Argo” will keep you on the literal edge of your seat, either in anticipation of the characters’ fate or in laughter at the well-placed humor.
Though it depicts human cruelties and obviously shows a nation strangled by oppression and violence, the film is keen to avoid demonizing Iranians. While the CIA agent’s dialogue and footage from American protesters in the film might suggest otherwise, it’s really about peace between nations and saving lives. It’s a taut thriller, as the circumstances of the historical period were actually grim, and not because of the creative liberties Affleck takes with historical events. It’s exciting to see what this actor and sophomoric director will show us next.