Who wasn't surprised by Ben Affleck's directorial debut "Gone Baby Gone," which came out way back in 2007? At that point, Affleck's career had had already his some serious low points, and it was almost impossible to take him seriously. But that film, which starred his brother, Casey, showed a completely different side of Affleck, and when he came out with "The Town" two years ago, we knew he was legit. It's true, both "The Town" and his new film "Argo" are told extraordinarily conventionally, but both are seethingly entertaining, and the new one will be a legitimate Best Picture contender.
"Argo" is set in 1979, moments before the American embassy is Tehran is stormed by Iranian students and militants. This was, of course, one of the defining moments of the last century. Almost all of the Americans who were in there were held hostage for over a year, and the event almost certainly cemented Ronald Reagan's bid for the U.S. Presidency. Those two things are essentially the beginning of the world order we're currently in, and Affleck makes that invasion of U.S. soil terrifying.
Of course, I did say 'almost,' when it came to the Americans being held hostage. See, "Argo" is based on the true story of the six Americans who actually escaped the situation, and went underground in Tehran, eventually hiding out in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, and the insane scheme by a CIA agent to smuggle them out. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, that CIA agent, who went to Hollywood special effects superstar John Chambers, played by John Goodman, to put together a phony sci-fi movie, called "Argo," which allowed him sneak into Tehran and sneak out with the hidden Americans, all of them posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations. Yes, that's so insane that it sounds like a movie, right? And now it is, and quite a thrilling one at that. It's certainly worth remembering that it is, in fact, a movie, that Hollywood has Hollywooded up this story—but that seems appropriate, considering that half the film actually takes place within the film industry. "Argo" works because it's exciting, thrilling, and emotional, but also funny and entertaining. Sure, it's conventional, and sure, there are bits and pieces added in to make it more action-packed than the actually events. But none of that that took away from my enjoyment of the movie.
Look, you may be tempted to think that "Argo" is timely or important, and it's wise not to get sucked into that trap. The U.S. has been dealing with Iran antagonistically for more than 30 years--making a movie about it now does not qualify as timely. And certainly, there are moments of "Argo" that are emotional, but that doesn't make it particularly profound--though it will find friends on both sides of the political aisle. No, it's just a great story told in an exciting manner. It's Hollywood, make no mistake about that, and we often forget that the ideal of Hollywood is to tell good stories well. In this case, that's precisely what Ben Affleck has done.