Sunday, October 14, 2012

Affleck Proves He's One of Today's Best Directors With a Great Political Thriller: Our Review of "Argo" (2012)

Directed By: Ben Affleck (The Town

Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman

Rating: R for language and some violent images

Run Time: 2 hours

Synopsis: On November 4, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 hostages – but 6 American diplomats were able to escape and took refuge with a Canadian ambassador. As tensions reached a tipping point, C.I.A. “exfiltrator” Tony Mendez (Affleck) hatches a plan, with the help of Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Arkin), to fly in to Tehran, pose with the “Houseguests” as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi film called “Argo,” and fly out together.


Andrew: Hello readers! Yesterday Sarah and I caught a morning showing of Ben Affleck’s new drama, Argo, which is based on the true story of CIA “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez’s mission to get six American embassy workers out of Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage situation.

Argo is Affleck’s third directorial effort and his second in a row where he’s pulling double-duty behind and in front of the camera. It’s a film we’ve talked about at length now, Sarah, what with our appearance on the As Your Watch podcast where we talked about it and we previewed it a bit on Thursday, too.

It’s one that we’ve been hearing a lot of good things about including plenty of Oscar buzz. So now that we’ve seen Argo, what did you think of it, Sarah?

Sarah: I was thoroughly impressed! I thought that the storyline was good, but how Affleck execute the plot was amazing. The movie is based on a true story of a classified CIA operation and the general public didn’t know about it until President Clinton declassified it in 1997. (Editor’s note: Until then all the praise had been given to the Canadian government because if Iran knew the U.S. had successfully gotten embassy workers out from under them, the hostages would be in trouble.)

So the strength of the movie was that even though we knew how the story would end, the execution of presenting the story and keeping it as intense as it was was incredibly. Another strength of the movie was the cast. I really enjoyed this movie and can see why Oscar buzz is already surrounding it.

A: What exactly do you mean when you say the cast was a strength of the movie? It’s a relatively large cast, so which members of it are you talking about specifically, if any?

S: Well…I think that John Goodman and Alan Arkin were hilarious as John Chambers and Lester Siegel. They’re most definitely the comic relief and their chemistry on-screen is so good, and they’re so believable as a couple of Hollywood insiders.

A: This would be a good chance to mention that Goodman’s John Chambers was a real special effects/makeup artist who won an Academy Award for his work on Planets of the Apes and had worked with the CIA many times before, while Arkin’s Siegel isn’t a real producer but his role is a placeholder for Chambers’ real-life special effects colleague Bob Sidell, who helped in the real mission.

John Chambers (Goodman), Lester Siegel (Arkin) and Tony Mendez (Affleck) concoct a plan to set up a fake sci-fi film to save some American diplomats hiding in Tehran during the Iranian hostage situation in Argo. Their little catch-phrase they toast to here is a particular favorite of ours in the film.

S: I did not know that! Very cool!

A: Right? Anyways, continue…

S: I felt that Bryan Cranston did a great job as Jack O’Donnell, who was Mendez’s boss who helped him get the mission’s greenlight from the President. I  loved his delivery of lines, he was funny and turned into a hard-ass when he needed to. He’s just great in general.

I felt that the Houseguests were casted perfectly, especially looks-wise and acting-wise they did great showing the fear the real Houseguests must’ve felt. Tate Donovan…I kind of wish they had done a little more with him because I feel he’s probably the most recognizable of the six Houseguests.

But I felt that Ben Affleck did a great job in his role, but what I loved about the movie is that it didn’t necessarily all revolve around him. It was very much an ensemble performance, which I enjoyed and I think viewers will enjoy because it’s not focused on just one person.

A: I completely agree with you on the strength of the cast. If it wasn’t cast as well as it has been, it wouldn’t have had the some impact that it did. You’re spot on about Affleck in that he does a good job with what he’s supposed to do but his character doesn’t overshadow anyone else. The spotlight is shared throughout the whole film. Affleck does a nice job of…yes he’s a movie star but it’s not like he exudes that throughout the movie. It’s a very understated performance, with his character and the gravity of the situation at hand. It helps bring out the other members of the cast.

I agree with you that Goodman and Arkin are hilarious. I love the fact that Goodman’s character is a real person and he had worked with Mendez before. I thought that was pretty neat. What I liked about the two of them is they play well into the structure of the movie. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

Oh, another real quick I want to say that as much as I liked Arkin and Goodman, I think one or both of them will get nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but I don’t think either one of them will win.

S: Nope. They were just great off of each other. They had some good scenes when they were alone with Affleck, but they were better together.

A: The actors who play the Houseguests were all great. I thought Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford was fantastic, especially because his character is the one who is most hesitant about the mission and doesn’t trust Mendez. He even has his wife, Kathy (played by Kerry Bishé), siding with him not to partake in the mission.

Christopher Denham, we liked him in Sound of my Voice, but he didn’t have a whole lot to do here…

S: No he didn’t, but he did well with what he was given to do.

A: But here’s the thing, he and Clea DuVall (The Faculty) play a married couple, Mark and Cora Lijek, and they were very believable in those roles. Same with McNairy and Bishé as Joe and Kathy Stafford.

S: Oh you thought so? I didn’t find them too believable as a married couple. I felt that McNairy was better than she did.

A: Oh I think so too, but I felt she did a good job portraying the fear of being caught and killed at any time.

S: And I felt that he did a good job playing the guilty husband, because he feels like it’s his fault the two of them are in that situation. Because she asked to leave Iran months prior and he said he wanted to stick it out a little while longer, and she agreed, and now he feels like it’s his fault they’re in that situation.

Argo is a fantastic ensemble drama, with scenes like this one where Mendez is grilling the "houseguests" on their fake identities being a highlight.

A: Good point. And McNairy has one of the better scenes in the whole film during the climax when Mendez and the Houseguests are pulled aside by Revolutionary Guards and grilled about what they’re doing, and McNairy’s Joe pulls out the storyboards they have and, pretending to be the film’s associate producer, explains to the guards in Farsi what kind of movie they’re shooting.

S: It’s a great scene and he did a great job in it. We’ll touch on that scene again soon.

A: Yes. But so a point I wanted to make about Arkin and Goodman’s characters, yet another strength of Argo is its structure. I felt that Argo does a great job giving the audience a brief history lesson right at the beginning and then diving right into the riots. It throws you right into the situation at hand in the embassy and Affleck does a great job building the tension right there.

S: Then it goes to Washington, D.C. where the C.I.A. throws around different ideas on how to get the Houseguests out of there…

A: Which has some comic relief but is also pretty tense. Then you go to Hollywood, a little more comic relief to lessen the tension a bit. But then at the end of Mendez’s stay in Hollywood Affleck does this great thing where he cuts back and forth between a read-through of the Argo script by the full cast and shots of the hostage situation escalating. That was a great scene because then it reminded you that this is a real thing threat going on.

Honestly, through the whole movie the tension just wouldn’t let up. We damn near had heart attacks watching this movie.

S: There’s a sequence of events where Mendez and the Houseguests are trying to get through the airport security and get on their plane out of Iran that I believe will get this movie Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director alone. I think this purely because of the tension that is built up by Affleck; it’s palpable and terrifying.

Even though we kind of know where the story is going because it’s a true story and we know how it turns out, we still found ourselves grabbing the arms of our seats and saying, “Okay! Go! C’mon, hurry up!” It got to the point where we had a hard time sitting in our seats because it definitely made us anxious.

A: Do you want to mention a little more specifically why that sequence was so intense?

S: There are three checkpoints at the airport they have to get through: the first is just showing your passport, the second is showing this receipt-type thing showing when you got into the country that the Iranians look to see if it matches with their records (and of course the Houseguests don’t have ones to match up with their forged ones Mendez gave them), and finally the Revolutionary Guards.

Each level they need to get through is just a little bit harder and the tension grows just a little bit more and all the time they’re in the airport there’s stuff going on back in America with the C.I.A. and Chambers and Siegel’s fake production company and people not being able to reach people they need to by phone…it was all just incredibly stressful and it was impressive that Affleck and company were able to pull that off with a story we know the ending to.

I think that is the main point – that even though we know what happens in the end, you’re still worried about these characters and their lives being at risk.

This interrogation of Mendez and the Houseguests at the airport is the climax of a series of scenes where Affleck just piles the tension on. A great pay-off scene in a great movie.

A: Absolutely. I couldn’t have said it any better. The entire time Mendez is in Iran trying to teach the Houseguests how to be these fake identities he’s created for them and then getting them through the checkpoints pretty much had me on the edge of my seat.

Because the Houseguests had to act, they had to BE these Canadian film crew members and they each had to have a different identity and know their history…

S: And they had to add to their character’s history if asked a question they needed to improvise on…

A: And Mendez is grilling them, berating them trying to get them uncomfortable because that’s what it’s going to be like at the airport and then the airport scene comes and the question becomes “Can they handle it?”

You said it best - the tension was palpable. You could literally chew on it, cut it with a knife, all those clichés.

S: You really could, it was awesome.

A: So this clearly is one of the best movies of the year. Some other minor things I liked: I liked the music because it wasn’t overpowering, it wasn’t memorable either, but it did what it needed to do and that was build the tension. It does it without hitting you over the head with it.

Affleck does fantastic job directing this movie. I said it on the podcast and I’ll say it again here, I think he’ll get nominated for Best Director and I think he might even win it. He doesn’t do anything super flashy…

S: Well his directing is actually a lot like his acting performance here, he doesn’t overshadow anything. He just enhances everything else about the movie.

A: He has a very steady hand. He doesn’t make one false step the entire way. At least I can’t think of one.

S: Neither can I. Because he does a fantastic job keeping the film balanced between everything that’s going on. It doesn’t seem like there’s too much. Because even though we know the hostage situation is going on it’s not like Affleck goes, “Ok, the audience knows that’s going on while we focus on the Hollywood stuff, we don’t need to show it.” No, he made a point to switch back to clips of what the hostages are being put through and how that was affecting America. Because all eyes were on the hostage situation when there were these six other Americans sneaking around the city and no one knew about it. It blew my mind.

I also loved the little details like the wardrobe and the set designs. Everything looked exactly like it came straight out of the late 70s/early 80s. The way the film looked and felt make it even more believable. Just amazing stuff.

A: Top to bottom this is a great movie. Not a single member of the cast hit a false note, Affleck does a great job directing it, I seriously cannot think of one bad thing to say about this movie.

Oh! Something I just remember that I loved was something so simple that Affleck does to increase the tension in the bazaar scene and the Revolutionary Guard interrogation scene was to not use subtitles when Iranian characters are talking or shouting things. The guards are speaking in Farsi but you have NO idea what they’re saying, just like most of the houseguests.

In the film only McNairy’s Joe speaks Farsi, so everyone else has no idea what’s going on and you can see the bewilderment on their faces, much like the audience should be feeling the same. I felt that was great, because a lot of times a director might give you subtitles, but the fact that we don’t know what the guards are saying…

S: You have to rely on the fact that Joe knows his Farsi.

A: And it’s just unsettling, so that was a great decision by Affleck. Ok, final thoughts on Argo?

S: This is most likely one that we will own as it’s one of the year’s best.

A: Absolutely. And once you've seen the movie, dear readers, we highly suggest reading this Wired article that helped inspire the movie.

FINAL VERDICT:  A must-see in theatres!

(Individual Scores - S: 5/5  A: 5/5)


  1. I'm pretty sure Affleck smoked about 74 times on camera as well.

    1. Oh he most definitely did, lol. Just adds to the realism! Like Mad Men!

  2. Affleck definitely has a smart-hand when it comes to directing, but he can't really help the fact that this is a true-story, that we all sort of know the outcome. Great movie, don't get me wrong, but not necessarily the Best Picture winner that I think people are talking about and expecting. Great review.

  3. Finally finished my portion of our review of this film so now I can read everyone elses take.

    I find myself in total agreement about the the high quality and great performances of the ensemble cast.

    Really enjoying Affleck behind the camera and his understated performaces in front of it was one of the keys to this films success.

    Argo is sure to be in many peoples top ten list at the end of the year.

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts on the film.