Mission Accomplished, by Scott Nye
Argo opens as Iranian revolutionaries are about to seize control of the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Immediately, embassy staffers go through the laborious process of destroying their most valuable records. Affleck establishes his handheld aesthetic immediately, which would be disorienting were his camera operators not so carefully in tune with their environments and those who populate them. We’re quickly introduced to a number of characters, few of whom will come to play an important role through the rest of the picture, but all of whom make an indelible impact. The commander of the embassy’s military unit, for example, is tasked with mitigating the conflict without starting a war. It’s a nothing role; his job is primarily to remind his troops (and us in the audience) of the consequences of violence in such a situation, and such a role is typically cast with the most officious actor on the call sheet. Not this time. This guy (and I wish I knew the actor’s name) knows his position and his role, but there’s a slight tremble in his voice that distinguishes him from the vast line of faceless military personnel that occupy the screen – he’s legitimately scared.
This sets the stage for a structurally-familiar, but pulse-pounding and, by the end, surprisingly emotional escape film. All the typical tricks are employed, from the ticking clock to the many, many obstacles to the guys going against orders to anything else you associate with the genre. Focusing not on the hostages of the more widely-known crisis, but on six Americans who escaped, and went into hiding at residence of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), Ben Affleck’s third film as director may hit all the story beats, but you’ll be too caught up in the drama to be counting. Because of that opening scene, in which even a military man is worried, the stakes instinctively feel higher than we typically see represented onscreen. It’s the smallest touch, but launches us right into the drama.
Affleck also stars in the film as Tony Mendez, the man tasked by the CIA to get these six people out. After discarding a series of standard cover stories – perhaps the Americans are actually Canadian teachers? Oh, but Western schools haven’t been open in Iran for nearly a year – he stumbles upon the idea to pose as a film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie, which would naturally utilize an exotic locale like Iran for an alien planet. In addition to just being a great premise (never mind the “it’s-all-true” conceit), it allows us to have some fun amidst the life-and-death stakes the film so ruthlessly maintains. Anytime one is graced with the presence of Alan Arkin (playing a two-bit producer) and John Goodman (a make-up artist with ties to the CIA), never mind in the same frame, you know you’re in for a rare treat, and the film has just the right amount of fun with Hollywood culture – caustic enough to land, broad enough to not feel terribly insular. And, for what it’s worth, Washington culture fares no better; when Tony and his supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), go to present their plan to the White House, Jack advises him to keep his cool – “it’s like talking to those two old fucks on The Muppets.” Bureaucracy rears its head at every turn, forever protecting the interests of the institution of the United States rather than the people who make it up.
By the time Tony touches down in Iran, however, there’s little room to joke. Though we’ve checking in with the hostages from time to time, subtly letting us get to know them before Tony does, the plan very quickly moves from the theoretical to the mortal. Earlier, Tony had been asked where his rescue mission would be, he simply says “the worst,” pointing to a TIME magazine cover highlighting the hostage crisis, and Affleck’s representation of Iran at the time very effectively gets that across – during his cab ride from the airport, he rides past a body hung from a crane. This is a bad place for anybody; exponentially more so for Americans, and while it’s one thing to have a laugh in Washington or Hollywood about this wacky scheme you’ve got cooked up, it’s quite another when you’re telling a group of people that their lives depend on it.
Affleck is an actor I’ve always enjoyed, though I will allow that it takes a strong director to bring out the best in him, and one could be forgiven for thinking, after The Town, that he was not such a director. Here, however, he’s cast him in a part that utilizes his innate strengths – calmness, affabilty, and resolve without posturing – with a certain trustworthiness that comes to most attractive men, especially as they age. When it all comes down to it, the only assurance he can give is his word, and Affleck sells Tony’s “this is what I do, I get people out” refrain especially well (though his lack of ease in Hollywood, or when presenting his plan, is equally informative). All told, it’s not a terribly dynamic part, nor does it need to be – the emotional intensity of the situation (along with a subplot involving Tony’s troubled marriage) is assumed, or eloquently expressed without Affleck resorting to hysterics. Everything you need to know about this guy is summed up in one solo scene. Tony is at the airport, about to depart for Iran. Jack has just reminded him that should he be captured, the CIA will disavow any knowledge of him, to which Tony remarks that they won’t have to worry about that since they’ll probably just kill him. He tries to call his young son, but nobody answers the phone, so he writes him a quick, but heartfelt, postcard. He doesn’t cry or bemoan their distance. In fact, we barely even see his face. He simply drops the postcard into the mailbox, and off he goes. It takes a rare confidence to do so little onscreen, especially when he’s the one heading up the production.
His role innately calls for him to be the centering force amidst the madness, but he also brings the madness. I’ve already mentioned Arkin and Goodman, who slide into their roles like a favorite pair of jeans, and it’s nice to finally see Cranston being good in a motion picture. As incredible as he is on Breaking Bad, the cinematic career that resulted has been less that fruitful, but here he finally seems at ease in a very stock type (the crusty-but-benign superior who curses his subordinate for disobeying orders, all the while orchestrating the administrative end to help him succeed). The cast is further peppered with the kind of ensemble about whom any director would dream, from your Kyle Chandler to Chris Messina to Titus Welliver to Rory Cochrane to Philip Baker Hall and Richard Kind and, holy crap, was that just Michael Parks?
Affleck isn’t just using these guys for their names and reputation (even if just among cinephiles). These are people of considerable talent, who, in collaboration with Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio, so deftly establish distinct characters with a series of slight sketches, that by the time they and the expert plotting come together, one could easily find oneself digging one’s fingernails into their chair/jacket/loved one/stranger, desperately hoping for an outcome you, deep down, know is inevitable. To sustain this level of suspense over, essentially, half the film is stunning all on its own; to do so in the context of a story to which we already know the outcome is quite another. That’s storytelling, sure, but more potently, that’s filmmaking. Gone Baby Gone and The Town showed promise, but with Argo, Affleck is operating at another tier of filmmaking.
There’s been a lot of talk about how Argo harkens back to the filmmaking of the 70s, when things were more honest or for adults or whatever myth we’re all most interested in perpetuating these days, as though, were it not for that damn George Lucas, every movie would be just like All the President’s Men. The truth is that even the films of those era that fit the mold from which Argo was formed weren’t always that exceptional (I can’t get onboard with The Parallax View, and I’m only somewhat more enthused by Three Days of the Condor, to name but two). Great filmmaking is timeless, and here Affleck has bested many of his antecedents, fully digesting what they founded and topping them in many other aspects. It’s easy, because of the setting of the thing and the various trappings that entails, to too closely associate this with the films of the period it represents and say “they just don’t make them like this anymore,” but what do you know, they just did. Affleck hasn’t made a nostalgia trip for a more hard-bitten era; he’s made a great film for ours, one that so gracefully kept me in its grasp that I nearly stood and cheered at its finale. Not an emotion I’m particularly given to, but I haven’t been this excited by a piece of mainstream cinema since The Social Network.