It's absurd to those who still associate him with Daredevil and Gigli, but when our backs were turned, Ben Affleck became a Serious Filmmaker. He launched his career as a director with low-key, character-based genre fare — tense crime-fiction narratives that were smart, efficient and restrained. Throw in the impressive, résumé-building detail that he guided two Oscar-nominated performances in his first two films as a director, and the transformation was complete.
Argo seems like a perfect fit for Affleck in its human-scale suspense, with the added cachet of it being an improbable real-life story. In November 1979, as Iranian students took over the American embassy in Tehran, six Americans managed to sneak out a back door and find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Two months later, time is running out to bring the hidden refugees home.
So CIA analyst Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with an absurd plan: He'll fly into Iran and have the six Americans pose as part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film titled Argo. As one of the would-be escapees responds, "Is this where we say, 'It's so crazy it just might work?'"
It is crazy, and funny, and some of Argo's most satisfying moments come from Mendez working with his Hollywood contacts to set up a convincing fake movie. Alan Arkin gets the juiciest material as a veteran producer. Affleck also directs a terrific sequence cutting between a staged press event for the beginning of the fake Argo production, and the ratcheted-up rhetoric of the Iranians holding the hostages in the U.S. embassy; it emphasizes the different ways in which the press becomes the mouthpiece for those wanting to sell a story. For a film that shoehorns in a mess of politics and history, Argo generally clicks along with crowd-pleasing style.
What Affleck doesn't have here is a screenplay with a ready-made structure, like the novel adaptations he had for Gone Baby Gone and The Town. That's a problem when it's deemed necessary to give Mendez some kind of personal back-story. The subplot feels like a forced attempt at making his mission more "personal," perhaps somehow connected to the long night of soul-searching we see when he's informed the government is shutting down the operation for fear of jeopardizing the planned military rescue of the other American hostages.
At the point where the narrative should be focused on the logistics of the escape, Argo starts to feel cluttered — it bounces between Mendez and his charges, the suits in Washington trying to get the mission re-approved, the producers in Hollywood waiting for a call to support the cover story, and Iranians trying to reconstruct shredded documents to see if they can identify whether any Americans are missing.
But when it matters most, Affleck nails the scenes that require building maximum suspense. The "location scouting" trip to the Tehran Grand Bazaar captures the anxiety of the fake Canadian filmmakers with minimalist intensity; the navigation of the gauntlet of security at the airport builds to a wonderful moment in which the American who most doubted the mission winds up selling the fake Argo plot to guards.
Affleck as a director may not be able to overcome every limitation of his raw material, but he's got an enviable skill set: rendering anxiety as action, and turning difficult stories into mass-market entertainment.