Monday, October 29, 2012

The Reinvention of Ben Affleck

Ten years ago, Ben Affleck may have been the biggest laughing stock in Hollywood - a pretty boy with nothing much going for him except the good fortune of being Matt Damon's close friend.   At the time, you could have gotten great odds on the prospect of Affleck ever becoming a major, respected Hollywood player.

But here we are in the fall of 2012, and that's exactly what has happened.  As a director, Affleck has now delivered three consecutive thrillers - "Gone Baby Gone," "The Town," and now "Argo" - that together can easily stand against any other filmmaker's output during a similar time period.  And for good measure, Affleck has acted in two of them (the latter two), and if he hasn't turned in anything that might be considered an Oscar caliber performance, neither has he embarrassed himself.  And he's been surrounded by pretty heady company - Jeremy Renner and Jon Hamm in "The Town," and Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Bryan Cranston in "Argo."

As far as thrillers go, "Argo" is about as good as it gets.  The fact that it tells (and in some places, admittedly embellishes) a true story, about the extrication of six U.S. Embassy employees in Tehran who had the good sense to "get while the getting was good," is a point in its favor.  Anyone who was alive during the late 1970s will remember the hostage situation in Iran, and how it stood as a turning point in the annals of U.S. foreign policy and its standing as a world power.  The movie doesn't dwell on the politics of what happened in Iran, but it does a fine job of quickly establishing the basic facts that led to the ouster of the Shah and the installation of the Ayatollah.

From that point on, "Argo" becomes a bundle of increasing tension, as the six escapees - now ensconced in the home of the Canadian ambassador - are confronted on a daily basis by evidence that all that stands between them and an angry crowd that would, in all likelihood, execute them publicly - are the walls of the home where they hide.

As a filmmaker, Affleck constructs the story masterfully - knowing that an ever-increasing cascade of tension might lessen the impact of the film's last act, he spends just the right amount of time in Hollywood, detailing the efforts to establish a credible cover story.  As Tony Mendez, the CIA exfiltration expert, Affleck wisely downplays the emotion, which makes the contrast between him and his Hollywood partners - John Goodman (as a noted makeup expert) and Alan Arkin (as a successful producer who's seen better days) all the more entertaining.  And in one memorable scene, he cross-cuts between a bogus Hollywood reading of the fake film and the propaganda "press conferences" taking place in Tehran - that clearly sends the message that whether it be film or it be "real life," we should not always believe what we see on the small (or large) screen.

The final act, where the escape goes into motion, is brilliant and almost unbearably tense - and it is here that Affeck's underplaying of his role pays off in spades.  It's likely that Mendez was at least as scared as his charges as they made their way out of the country, but he couldn't show it - he had to set an example for them, to convince them that he believed the plan was going to work.

Whether or not it garners any Oscar nominations, it's pretty clear that "Argo" is one of the best movies of the year - well written, well acted, and tightly constructed.  Kudos all around.

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