He portrayed a thuggish football player in “Dazed and Confused.”A hunky romance-wrecker in “Mallrats.” He won a screenwriting Oscar with Matt Damon for “Good Will Hunting.” And then he almost threw it all away by starring in a series of mostly forgettable action and romance flicks. But for Ben Affleck, the Hollywood cliché of actors saying “What I really want to do is direct” came as a salvation.
Case in point: “Argo,” the drama based on actual events that occurred during the Iranian revolution of 1979. Building on an already impressive directorial résumé that includes “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” Affleck took a tale filled with natural suspense and added some smooth touches that, though pure Hollywood, never overshadow the natural power of a true story.
The strength of “Argo” is clear from the beginning when, in a narrated overview, the movie points out that the whole Iranian revolution had been set in motion in 1953 when the U.S. backed a coup that removed a democratically elected government and restored absolute power to the country's traditional monarch, the shah. After offering that perspective, the movie fast-forwards to 1979 when, as Iranian demonstrators storm the U.S. embassy, six American workers escape out a back entrance and make their way to the Canadian ambassador's residence.
Question is, as the six sit around trying to learn the mechanics of the metric system — they are, after all, staying with Canadians — what will Washington do? They can't just fly in a commando team and pick the six up the way James Bond might. So after suggesting, and rejecting, several rescue plans, veteran CIA operative Tony Mendez — played by Affleck — comes up with a crazy scheme where, pretending to be a movie producer, he would fly to Tehran and smuggle the six out as members of his crew.
Among all the bad ideas that get proposed, the State Department is promised, this is the best bad idea there is. By far. So Mendez is given the OK to go to Hollywood, make contacts, set up a production office, get some publicity and take off for Tehran.
The facts of the case, which were declassified only 16 years after the fact, during Bill Clinton's administration, are clear. But it took Affleck and Hollywood another two and a half decades to find a way to portray the event on the big screen. And, sure, “Argo” takes things too far here and there. An escape scene that includes irate Iranians running through the airport and even racing down the runway are clearly invented for effect.
But Affleck has already worked hard to make his film feel authentic. From the look of bell-bottom jeans to the seamless blending of Istanbul settings and historical film footage, “Argo” works hard to make us feel as if we are right there. And though Affleck himself doesn't emote much as Mendez, the cast he surrounds himself with — featuring Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin — fills in the dead spots. The overall result makes “Argo” one of those particularly rich examples of Hollywood luster: a thinking person's thriller.
What more can you ask for? This is the movies, after all, not a history lesson.