The pre-“Star Wars” 1970s is considered a golden age of film by most cinephiles (read: movie nerds). It is remembered that in those days Hollywood favored gritty realism over the flash and boom of summer blockbusters.
Brilliant directors and gifted actors with bad hair cranked out masterpieces like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” To be fair, it’s also the decade that produced “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Zardoz,” but I digress.
I think it’s safe to say that actor/director Ben Affleck is a fan of ’70s cinema because he adopts not only the feel but also the look of the era for his so-crazy-it-has-to-be-true thriller “Argo.”
Set during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, the movie tells the recently declassified, true story of six American diplomats who avoided capture and were subsequently taken out of the country by the CIA while posing as a Canadian film crew.
The result is a slick, tense, wry, white-knuckle-ride of a movie that is also one of the best films of the year.
Much has been made of Affleck’s transition from hit-and-miss leading man into an acclaimed director, but since he has gone three-for-three with “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and now his best film, “Argo” I think it’s safe to go ahead and just consider him one of the most talented directors working in Hollywood today.
I’ve made much already about “Argo” being a ’70s homage, but I think what truly makes Affleck a throwback director is how he makes movies that are arty and thoughtful, but also supremely entertaining. It seems that today’s movies have to be either/or and it’s amazing how fresh this tried-and-true approach to filmmaking now feels up on the big screen.
Affleck tips his old-school hand right away by displaying the retro red and white Warner Brothers logo but then slips into a dynamic prologue that tells the political backstory with what are essentially storyboards.
Proving he still can get it done in front of the camera, Affleck cast himself as Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who not only came up with the film crew cover story but is also tasked with overseeing the diplomats’ escape.
“Argo” hits all the right beats when on the ground in Iran, packing the back half of the movie with pulse-racing, hold-your-breath tension. However, it is the scenes in Hollywood that give the movie its fascinating counterbalance.
To ensure the cover story is airtight, Mendez has to make it appear there really is a movie. So he flies to Hollywood to enlist the help of makeup artist John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel (played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin respectively, both dependably great) to start production on a fake movie.
They print up posters, buy a script and a little ad space for “Argo,” a sci-fi fantasy looking to film in a place with a “middle-eastern feel.”
Affleck does a great job of comparing and contrasting the shared absurdity of film production and world politics to the point that it becomes clear it is all just grand theater to wow the masses.
At one point when discussing the secrecy surrounding the mission to the point that even success would be hidden, Mendez’s boss, Jack O’Donnell (played by the awesome Bryan Cranston), remarks, “Well, if we wanted applause, we should have joined the circus.”
To which Mendez replies, “I thought we did.”
“Argo” is a terrific movie that pulls off the rare trifecta of being smart, funny, and exciting. Affleck shows a great attention to detail, even taking a victory lap during the credits by comparing actual news footage from the time with shots in the film.
After making a movie this good, I’m willing to allow Affleck this little display of grandstanding, especially after so effectively taking us back to the 1970s in more ways than one.
“Argo” is rated R for language and some violent images.