Argo is a movie about three things. Argo is a movie about why we love movies. Argo is a movie about what movies are supposed to be. Argo is, lastly, a movie about the redemption of Ben Affleck.
Argo tells the story of a CIA rescue operation carried out during the Iran hostage crisis in which, to rescue six Americans who had found their way out of the burning embassy and were hiding in the house of the Canadian ambassador, the CIA created a fake movie agency and smuggled them outside of the country as foreign filmmakers.
Affleck plays the lead role, CIA extraction expert Tony Mendez, an affable character who expertly straddles the line between emotion and professionalism. The audience is quickly introduced to Mendez in his office, where he is tasked with rescuing the agents and struggles to find an idea to do so. The agency throws around cover stories—in one memorable exchange, Mendez addresses a fellow official and asks him if he truly expects the hostages to bike hundreds of miles through the desert across the border to another country—but is stuck.
While home and talking to his child on the phone, Mendez is hit with a bolt of inspiration. Affleck gets the ear of his superior, played by Bryan Cranston, and begins describing the idea: using a fake movie production of a sci-fi script called Argo as cover to extract the hostages. After getting support—Cranston pitches it to the organization as “the best bad idea we’ve got”—Affleck goes to Hollywood and works with a Hollywood makeup artist (John Goodman) and longtime producer (Alan Arkin) to make the fake film.
The movie is a testament to the evolution of Ben Affleck as a director. A brilliantly directed opening sequence in Tehran, where quickly moving shots capture the raging incoherence of mob protest, conveys the dystopia faced by the fleeing diplomatic corps. Forced to be the faces of a President harboring the shah, a detested despot in Iran, the group of six is a picture of frayed nerves the entire time, fearing for their lives. Chris Terrio’s brilliant script moves fluidly back across the Atlantic Ocean, first to Washington and then to California, where the Hollywood personas of Goodman and Arkin give the movie its true comedic delight.
Affleck and Terrio strike a balance between humor and gravity in the movie; the Arkin and Goodman characters provide a balance of levity and urgency in their approaches to the rescue. As they sort through bad scripts, Arkin rejects idea after idea, asserting facetiously “if I make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit!” In the town of Hollywood glitz and glamor, Arkin and Goodman introduce Mendez to how to get things done, a comedic process that involves preying on Arkin’s inside knowledge of everyone’s personal lives to coerce them into paying him back favor after favor. The entire “this is so crazy is might work” motif hangs over the middle section of the film, as scrambling executives move to make the agency in less than a week to satisfy Mendez’s superiors back at the CIA, who threaten to “move ahead with the bikes” if the idea doesn’t work.
During this time, flashbacks to Tehran keep the movie grounded in reality and cuts to the embassy—where rebels are putting together images that had been put through the paper shredder in order to try and account for all the hostages—maintain a dramatic undertone to the oft-whimsical proceedings in California.
The voyage of Mendez to Tehran is the weakest part of the film. The drama is slightly overplayed, with the images of child workers putting together paper strips to identify the missing six slightly ridiculous. When interviewed about the movie, Mendez mentioned that the airport extraction went without a hitch but, with the typical Hollywood flair that turns the mundane in each story into the dramatic, it is nearly a thirty minute process that culminates with the plane taking off with Iranian security officials chasing it down the runway.
At its core, however, Argo’s distinguishing characteristic is its stark simplicity. Affleck makes no attempt to get the audience emotionally attached to any one character and leaves no onerous subplots to drag the film astray. The movie attempts to do no more than tell a story and insofar as it achieves its goal, it is, perhaps, the best move of the year. Slight satirizing of Hollywood only brings to the forefront the idea of Argo as a throwback to previous, utopian cinematic times. Nowhere do computer-generated images dominate action and reduce the onus on the human actors to, well, act. Nowhere are scantily clad women (or men, looking at you Steven Soderberg) used to attract denizens to the theater for their beauty instead of their performance.
The financial motives that form a significant motif in Arkin and Goodman’s interactions with Hollywood mainstays are as much an indicator as any about what moves images on scripts to the big screens now: profitability, not ingenuity. In the words of Katey Rich, “Argo is a spy thriller of a buttoned-up old school variety; we’re not given a lot of emotional attachments to these characters, and the reward for a job well done is a pay on the back, not an explosion of grateful tears.” Argo is a movie that aims to entertain and use the cinema as a medium of storytelling instead of embellishment and creation. The drama is rarely burdensome, the attention to detail in casting and costuming meticulous, and the emotion of the moment captured without being oversaturated. There are no side plots, and the movie’s happy endings and overarching motifs (international cooperation and goodwill, the power of innovation, etc.) are benign without being intrusive (à la Tarantino’s attempts at forced catharsis). It is, inauspiciously, a movie that tries to be no more. It is a throwback to the novel conception of movies and is in its simplicity, simply beautiful.
The story of Ben Affleck begins here in Cambridge. Not with the set of Good Will Hunting but when he, at the age of eight, met a 10-year old Matt Damon. The two are tenth cousins and went to the same schools together before going off to different colleges. When their education was over, they teamed up for Hunting, a movie with Damon in the lead and Affleck as his big brother, hidden in the shadow but notable nonetheless. The two shared an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year and the next three years Affleck starred in three Hollywood blockbusters (Armageddon, Forces of Nature, and Pearl Harbor). At this point in his career, he was reportedly earning $15 million dollars a year and was one of Hollywood’s rising young stars. A handsome thirty-something, Affleck was dating Jennifer Lopez—another young Los Angles starlet—and looked to be heading to the top of the film world. The utopian career peak was never realized, however. In fact, it was never close.
After starring in several box office successes and critically lauded films, Affleck struggled to find a script that he didn’t like during the mid-2000s. Producing films like Daredevil, Surviving Christmas, and Gigli—the last film had him nominated for ‘Worst Actor’ for his role by an independent comic organization—Affleck’s career went sour. In the meantime, his tabloid recognition eclipsed his mediocre work. He broke up with Lopez as he was caught getting lap dances while they were engaged. They called off the wedding, citing both personal reasons and excessive media attention. This occurred right before the premiere of Gigli, where Lopez and Affleck starred together in a film that IMDB summarized as “the violent story about how a criminal lesbian, a tough-guy hit-man with a heart of gold, and a retarded man came to be best friends through a hostage.”
Since his nadir, Affleck has struggled to turn it around in front of the camera. While he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in Hollywoodland, he was featured in a number of forgetful romantic comedies and continued a worrisome trend after the promising beginning to a career. However, Affleck—who did a lot of the work for Good Will Hunting that went on behind the scenes—transitioned to work as a director and immediately demonstrated talent considerably more vast than his as an actor. Gone Baby Gone and The Town, his first two features, were tremendous and received a lot of media attention for his directing. Argo is the culmination of this transition and while it is, coincidentally, Ben Affleck’s best job in front of the camera, it is also an epitome of his renaissance.
Affleck’s most notable facial expression is the slight smirk, the look of confidence that comes from inner belief among a torrent of media slander. From Good Will Hunting to Dazed and Confused, the superior look that simultaneously manages to appear self-satisfied and strained is an iconic Affleck expression. He flashes it early in Argo, a quiet acknowledgement of the film that should shut up his critics for good. While not quite an “Argo f— yourself,” a comedic mantra used over and over in the movie, Affleck’s look at the audience is an indication of something deceivingly simple: he’s back, and he knows it.