As a new-minted star in 1997, standing alongside Matt Damon and hoisting their screenwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck seemed to embody Hollywood as we all wish it could be: a place where a couple of childhood friends can write their own script, star in their own movie, and end up as the feel-good undercard in an Academy Awards ceremony dominated by the old-fashioned spectacle of James Cameron’sTitanic.
Then Affleck spent the next decade embodying Hollywood as we wish it weren’t. He starred in bad action movies, mediocre dramas, lousy comedies, and bloated Titanic wannabes. He made not one but two movies with Michael Bay. He tried and failed to fill Harrison Ford’s shoes as Jack Ryan. In one year, 2003, he starred in the worst superhero movie of the 2000s (Daredevil), the worst Philip K. Dick adaptation of 2000s (the aptly titled Paycheck), and perhaps the worst movie of the 2000s, period (the immortal Gigli). By the middle of the decade, his public profile was defined by cinematic dreck, liberal politicking, and of course his tabloid romance with his Gigli co-star, Jennifer Lopez.
Yet here we are in 2012, and the story has come full circle. After scraping bottom as an actor, Affleck has reinvented himself as a director in the last five years, and with his new true-to-life (or true-enough, at least) thriller, Argo, he suddenly feels like the embodiment of Hollywood at its best again.
His first two turns behind the camera were crime dramas: 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, which starred his brother Casey as one of the novelist Dennis Lehane’s conflicted detectives, and 2010’s heist film The Town. Both were set in the warrens of his native Boston, and though The Departed and Mystic River explored that territory first, Affleck’s Boston movies hold up as well as — if not better than — Martin Scorsese’s or Clint Eastwood’s more operatic takes. Both are the kind of entertainments for adults that critics like yours truly are forever complaining that the movie industry has given up on — gritty and serious, but also fast-moving and fun, wearing their hints of pretentiousness lightly enough for it to be forgiven them.
Argo is the same kind of film, but with a wider canvas and a more politically significant story. The movie opens in Tehran in 1979, with grainy documentary footage giving way to a gripping reenactment of the storming of the American embassy, and then the story zeroes in on six quick-thinking embassy staffers who slip out a back exit while everyone else gets taken hostage. These escapees make their way to the Canadian ambassador’s house, where they hole up, unbeknownst to the Iranians, to wait for American intelligence to come up with a way to slip them out.
There are no good plans for pulling this off, but the “best bad plan,” as one character ruefully puts it, is the one that a CIA exfiltration expert named Tony Mendez (Affleck, buried under a late-Seventies shag haircut and beard) conjures up. His plan starts in Hollywood, where a makeup expert (John Goodman) and an old-timey producer (Alan Arkin) are induced by Langley to start production on a fake sci-fi movie: a $20 million Star Wars rip-off, set in a Flash Gordon–style universe and bearing the mythology-evoking title of “Argo.” Then it continues in Tehran, where Mendez shows up as the location-scouting producer for this imaginary movie, clutching forged passports that will allow the hidden Americans to pose as his “Canadian” film crew and fly home with him.
Some of the tension that follows is apparently a (forgivable) exaggeration of how fraught and down-to-the-wire the mission actually became. But what seems like the most absurd part of Argo — the whole elaborate Hollywood cover story, complete with movie posters and stories in Variety and staged readings of the script in a SoCal hotel — is apparently completely true to life. Unlike, say, the exploding cigars that the CIA supposedly considered using against Fidel Castro, this was a cockamamie scheme that actually played out roughly the way the Agency drew it up.
That makes Argo a particularly interesting story for a filmmaker with Affleck’s politics to have directed, because it mostly plays as a counterpoint to the sort of paranoid-style thrillers that dominated 1970s cinema — and that Affleck’s old pal Damon’s Jason Bourne movies played a significant role in reviving for the age of Bush.
Affleck is clearly an admirer of that genre. Argo lovingly evokes not only the texture of the Seventies entire — the beards, the cars, the haircuts, the lingo — but also the visual style of the era’s great conspiracy thrillers, from Three Days of the Condor to The Parallax View.
But Affleck’s homage to those movies is also an implicit rebuke to their rotten-with-cynicism worldview. There is some talk near the beginning of Argo about the CIA’s role in the Mossadegh coup to evoke the idea of blowback, and the ugliness of the Shah’s regime is referenced repeatedly. But those nods to America’s moral compromises are minor notes: The major theme is the much greater terror the Islamic Revolution ushered in, and the Scarlet Pimpernel–like genius with which our much-maligned national-security apparatus managed to pluck a handful of lives from the revolution’s grip.
Affleck’s Argo doesn’t just offer a reason to feel good about its no-longer-a-boy-wonder director and his industry, then. In our current season of drift, distrust, and disillusionment, it offers a reason to feel good about our country.