OK, put down your coffee and steady yourself, because you are about to read “Ben Affleck” and “best movie of the year” in the same sentence. Yes, it’s true, it wasn’t so long ago — somewhere between “Pearl Harbor” and “Gigli” — that Affleck wore out his welcome as a Hollywood A-lister, and nothing seemed to get his career back on the rails, not even “Surviving Christmas.” (Cheap shot, I know.)
Then he began directing: With “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” Affleck showed an affinity for gritty crime flicks set in his hometown of Boston, and proved he had a way with suspense. With “Argo,” he has definitely hit his stride and has made what may well be the best film of 2012.
When I heard Affleck was making a CIA movie, I imagined another “Bourne” ripoff, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. “Argo” is based on real events, and set in 1979 at the height of the Islamic revolution in Iran, when militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage. A half-dozen staffers escaped, though, and hid out in a safe house, setting off a race against time to somehow exfiltrate them from the chaos of the city before they were discovered by the Revolutionary Guard.
The true story of that covert op long remained a secret, and it turns out to have been more incredible than anything some spy-movie screenwriter could dream up. As one character in the film describes the maneuver, “It’s the best bad idea we have.”
My advice: Avoid reviews of this, and even the trailer! They’re all full of spoilers, and the sheer jaw-dropping audacity of the CIA plan is best when it comes as a total surprise.
Having said that, you always know you’re watching a great movie when your suspension of disbelief is such that despite knowing the historical outcome — the embassy staff all made it home safely — you’re still on the edge of your seat. Affleck just cranks up the tension with each shot, reaching its peak in a final airport sequence that will intensely tweak the fear receptors on anyone who’s ever been stopped in immigration by some cold-faced official.
Another key for a good director: Choose your collaborators well. Affleck has Rodrigo Prieto (of “Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel”) behind the camera, and he gives the film a grainy look that immediately places it in the era it depicts. He’s assisted by an art department that nails the lank hair and corduroy look of the ’70s to a tee. (If I’d dozed off and woken up mid-film, I would have thought I was watching 1976’s “All the President’s Men.”)
The scenes of chaos on the streets of Tehran are so well done that when a number of still photos from the period play over the closing credits, you can see exactly how closely the production design captured it. Throw in a score by one of cinema’s best, Alexandre Desplat (“A Prophet,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Tree of Life”), and you really can’t go wrong.
Affleck also appears on screen as well, as Tony Mendez, the CIA exfiltration specialist whose personal life has gone to hell — we first meet him face-down on a cheap motel bed surrounded by empty beer cans — but who still has all the pistons firing when it comes to his work. Maybe it’s the beard, but Affleck has a quiet authority, an ability to sell it with his eyes, that he didn’t have in the bad old days.
Bryan Cranston, from TV’s “Breaking Bad,” shines as Mendez’s long-suffering superior at the agency, while Alan Arkin and John Goodman bring a welcome dose of humor to the film, respectively playing a Hollywood producer and special-effects designer who are roped into Mendez’s operation. (And you can sense Affleck taking a certain amount of pleasure at having Arkin describe Tinseltown as “the bullsh-t business.”)
“Argo” works 100 percent as a straight-up hard-boiled thriller, but its deeper thematic current is about trust. Whether it’s the staffers trusting Mendez, a guy they don’t know from Adam who turns up with a hare-brained plan; everyone trusting in the goodwill of the Iranian housekeeper at their safe house to not give them up; or Mendez trusting his Hollywood friends to keep their mouths shut, “Argo” is about putting your very life in another’s hands, and what inspires that decision.