It seems absurd to those of us who associate him with Daredevil, J-Lo and Gigli, but when our backs were turned, Ben Affleck became a Serious Filmmaker.
That's not to say he makes Serious Films. He launched his directing career with low-key, character-based genre fare - tense crime-fiction narratives that were smart, efficient and restrained. Throw in Oscar-nominated performances in the first two films he directed - Amy Ryan's in Gone Baby Gone and Jeremy Renner's in The Town - and the transformation was complete.
Filled with suspense and an improbable real-life story, Argo seems like a perfect fit for Affleck. In November 1979, as Iranian students take over the U.S. embassy in Tehran, six Americans sneak out a back door and find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Two months later, time is running out to bring them home, and the intelligence community's options aren't good. So CIA analyst Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with a plan that's so crazy it just might work: He'll fly to Iran and have the six Americans pose as part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film titled Argo.
It is crazy - and funny. Some of Argo's most satisfying moments involve Mendez setting up a fake movie with his Hollywood contacts. Alan Arkin gets the juiciest material as a veteran producer who negotiates with the company that owns the rights to the script they want. Affleck also directs a terrific sequence that cuts between a press event for the faux film and the ratcheted-up rhetoric of the Iranians in the U.S. embassy, emphasizing the different ways the press becomes a mouthpiece for those trying to sell a story. For a film that must shoehorn in a mess of politics and history, Argo clicks along in a crowd-pleasing way.
Both Gone Baby Gone and The Town stemmed from novels, which yielded screenplays with ready-made structures. Not so for Argo. This creates problems when Affleck tries to give Mendez a backstory, specifically a young son and an estranged wife. Just when the narrative should focus on the logistics of the escape, it starts to feel cluttered, bouncing from Mendez and his charges to the suits in Washington to the producers in Hollywood to the Iranians in the U.S. embassy.
But Affleck nails the scenes that require maximum suspense-building. As a director, he may not be able to overcome every limitation of his raw material, but he's got an enviable skill set. He renders anxiety as action and turns difficult stories into mass-market entertainment. And he does it while making you forget about Gigli.