This is somewhat potentially embarrassing for me – as someone who has always considered himself a film buff I always used to be on top of awards season. Before the ceremonies I would have always seen the nominated films, talked them over and made my picks. This year though a multitude of things got in the way and when the Oscar ceremony rolled around I realised that I had seen hardly any of the big films that had picked up all the nominations. So, over the next few weeks I’m going to try to remedy this, by retrospectively looking over all the critical beloved movies of 2012 and seeing what all the fuss was about. I figured I may as well start with the big winner this year, Ben Affleck’s third film, Argo. Whilst it may not have won as many awards as some films in years past this film has been the concluding part of Affleck’s career second act as he makes the transition from fairly flaky actor to one of the leading directors of popular cinema in America. With an Oscar win for best picture (and a historic snub for best director) under his belt the critics are rubbing their hands with glee at where Affleck will go next. But how does this film match up? Does it really deserve the hype and has Affleck managed to escape things like this?
In short the answer is…yes. Following a little explored angle of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 the film follows six Americans who escape and are taken in by the Canadian ambassador. Whilst the country outside becomes ever more fervent in the quest for American “spies” the 6 low-level diplomats are left cowering in the crawl space. At the same time the CIA are desperately trying to find out some way of extracting them and from every side threats to the six become more and more extreme. The film follows the CIA’s top exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez, as he comes up with the ‘best worst idea’ they have. Fly in Iran as a Canadian producer; recruit the six to act as the crew on a location scout and then all fly out together.
Did I mention this is based on a true story?
One of the most impressive things about this film is that it genuinely captures the not only the mood of tension but the look and the feel of the late seventies. Everyone smokes, everyone drinks, all the time and the fashion and design is accurate down to the last detail. In a way the film feels like it came from another age of action movies too – no dumb explosions or unnecessary action but rather a story that expertly ratchets up the tension at every single opportunity. That isn’t to say that there are not cool action sequences, far from it. The opening sequence that details the fall of the embassy is done with a terrifying realism and the action emerges organically from the quality of the story. It’s the quality of the story that makes this too, as instead of wasting time of showy explosions the story is given urgency and the characters depth so that watching them drive through Tehran becomes edge of your seat excitement. Technically the film is great too; the editing and direction from Affleck are simply superb and the skills that Affleck showcased with Gone Baby Gone and the fantastic The Town have been honed and refined to a really high level. There isn’t an unnecessary moment, or pause to the film’s narrative and the editing just wrings every single drop of tension from every single sequence.
The film is also quite darkly comic too –mainly thanks to the fantastic performances from John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the Hollywood insiders who help Tony Mendez set up the legitimate production company to make his cover stand up. Arkin especially gets ALL the best lines, especially his fantastically rude response for why the fake film is called what it is. It’s the Hollywood scenes that probably help explain why the film was so beloved by organisations like the Academy, as it indulges the idea of a film about the power of cinema. Fans of film will have fun spotting the references and the little glimpses of insight into how the movie business worked back in the day. It feels like Affleck enjoyed directing these scenes too, allowing him to get in a few subtle digs at how the film industry and Hollywood works. The only moments where the pace slips a little are the scenes with the six people trapped in a house – as the story can’t allow anything to happen before the rescue the time is used as a chance for characterisation but the film picks up when the story can move forward again.
As I said, Affleck has proven that he is a director and an actor with the chops to handle material that results in high quality and intelligent entertainment, and the details of just how much was based on the historical record only increases my admiration for the film. Whether or not it deserves to have the title of best film of 2012 is a little difficult to judge right now, but if you’re looking for something smart, nail-bitingly exciting and expertly done it looks like the former Mr Jennifer Lopez is now the man to go to.
Kudos Ben. You’ve earned it.