Ben Affleck directs this taut and commercial thriller, his third behind the camera, with screw-tightening efficiency that would make Michael Mann proud. Multiple Oscar nominations are in order as this movie surges to the top of the current Oscar contenders list.
“You’re the first paying people to see the movie,” Affleck told the crowd at Telluride’s Chuck Jones Theater Friday afternoon. “It was a labor of love.” The actor-director said he was happy to present the movie at Telluride, where people come to see movies as opposed to walking around talking about them. Affleck’s only Oscar nomination to date earned him a 1998 original screenplay win with Matt Damon. Since then his best performances have been in his own films.
Think “The Insider” on steroids. Affleck gives a solid, naturalistic performance as Tony Mendez, a smart and experienced CIA operative who specializes in pulling people out of tight situations. Nothing could be tougher than Iran in November 1979, as angry American flag-burning mobs call for the return of the Shah, who has sought asylum in the U.S.
The film was produced by Affleck and George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s Smokehouse, who developed a script based on “The Master of Disguise” by Antonio J. Mendez and Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 Wired expose about the CIA’s declassified involvement in rescuing six hostages. (The credit went to the Canadians at the time.) Affleck was looking hard for the right project to do after “The Town,” and turned down several big studio projects. He got hold of “Damages” director Chris Terrio’s script and persuaded Clooney–who had also recognized a strong director-star vehicle–to let it go and produce it with him.
Affleck, like other actor-directors Clooney and Clint Eastwood, sees the value of staying hands-on with a modest budget. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Oscar-nominated for “Brokeback Mountain”) does outstanding work on location in Turkey, Los Angeles and the Ontario airport, while composer Alexandre Desplat (“The King’s Speech”) could land a fifth Oscar nomination.
For Affleck, playing the lead is efficient. He knows what he wants. Years of watching directors from Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”) to Terrence Malick (he stars in “To the Wonder,” which was playing too late at the Venice Fest, where it’s looking for a distributor, to also screen here).
The filmmakers build tension from the start, as a huge crowd breaks through the gates of the U.S. Embassy in November, 1979. Inside, people are scrambling to shred and burn everything they can; 55 are taken hostage and two women and four men escape to the Canadian Embassy. There they hang tight for 69 days.
The U.S. government and the CIA under President Jimmy Carter want to get them out, but can’t further inflame the situation as they try to save the other hostages. They come up with some silly schemes, but it is Affleck, inspired by seeing “Planet of the Apes” on television, who figures out the one that might just work: creating a dummy Hollywood production.
SPOILER ALERT Painfully slowly, as the Iranians literally piece together the identities of the missing Embassy personnel, Affleck and his CIA boss (Bryan Cranston) and others in the administration get the go-ahead to create a B-movie production, based on the sci-fi fantasy script “Argo.” The tone shifts to enjoyable Hollywood insider parody as ace comedic actors John Goodman and Alan Arkin (both welcomed by the crowd at the Chuck Jones) take the lead as a makeup artist and Cannes award-winning director on the downslope, respectively; the six hostages are to impersonate the producer, director, cameraman, associate producer and screenwriter on a location scout in Tehran.
The idea is so outrageous that it might work –but lives are definitely on the line. Safe to say, at the end of this screening the audience at the Chuck Jones Theater in Telluride were clapping enthusiastically. (If Affleck had stayed to take a bow, they would likely have stood up. The TBA screening Saturday will be packed when the LAT’s John Horn interviews Affleck.
The guy is a strong writer/director and delivers a movie that couldn’t be more timely, or more resonant with the world today. (The Middle East is such a theme at this festival that Annette Insdorf is conducting a Sunday panel on it which Affleck may attend.) Warner Bros. showed several of their fall films to Telluride: this is the one they wanted.
As for their Oscar track record–“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Juno,” “Up in the Air,” “The Artist,” “The King’s Speech,” among many other contenders, Telluride can rest easy, as SPC’s “Amour,” starring Jean-Louis Trintingnant, and “Rust and Bone,” starring Marion Cotillard, Magnolia’s “A Royal Affair,” starring Mads Mikkelsen, and others head into likely awards contention. “Only Oscar voters know,” said Telluride co-director Gary Meyer about the line-up at a press preview before the screening. “We show the best films from around the world and if the films get Oscar nominations and awards that’s great. We’re fine as long as you and the audience find films and discoveries.”