"I maybe have matured," Affleck says of his pursuit of smart, quality, modest-budgeted movies — he calls his $44-million Mideast thriller "Argo" "a labor of love" — designed to stand the test of time like the '70s classics he reveres.
DNA from the films of Martin Scorsese, Sydney Pollack, Sidney Lumet and Alan Pakula infuse "Argo," which Affleck directed from a Chris Terrio script, developed by George Clooney and Grant Heslov's Smoke House Productions from an article in Wired and ex-CIA operative Tony Mendez's memoir, that was so strong that the "Good Will Hunting" Oscar-winning screenwriter saw no need to do his customary overhaul. (See my flipcam interview with Affleck and a Tony Mendez clip below; my review from Telluride is here.)
The movie has earned raves as well as strong opening weekend numbers and a rare A+ Cinemascore from audiences. While Affleck understood that the film would be timely–unrest in the Middle East has not dissippated since the true 1980 events depicted here–he could not have known that a mob assault on a Benghazi, Libya U.S. consulate would make news headlines just as his film screened in Toronto. He now sees "Argo" as "a tribute to the diplomats who work overseas." And he duly changed a card at the end of the movie so as not to undercut the heroism of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, whose thunder this revisionist history steals just a tad.
At the film's Academy premiere, the audience gave the real Mendez a standing ovation. Being able to cheer a real American hero –and Hollywood–will help "Argo" ride the zeitgeist not only at the box office but in the awards race. Movies that tell us more about ourselves tend to do well. On the other hand, another film that rides the current news cycle, Kathryn Bigelow's about the capture of Osama bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty," could outshine "Argo" when it finally opens December 19. But that will be a tall order. Right now–until that film and rivals "Lincoln," "Life of Pi," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Les Miserables" play catch up–"Argo" leads the awards race.
Affleck is a strong and confident director who knows what he wants, from tightening the screws on the tension over just how the CIA will extricate six Americans who fled the U.S. Embassy in 1980 Tehran without getting them killed, to finding the right balance of humor from a Hollywood producer and makeup man (Alan Arkin and John Goodman) pretending to produce a sci-fi fantasy as cover for the escapees. While Arkin refuses to call the more comedic section of the movie a Hollywood satire (interview here), Affleck happily admits that lines like Arkin's classic "If I am doing a fake movie it's going to be fake hit" certainly qualify. But he insists that he cut any laugh that undermined the film's fabric of reality. "I'll never go for comedy," he says, "I'll go for realism."
Both Arkin and Affleck will certainly score Oscar nominations–along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu films ("Babel") that Affleck admires for their gritty naturalism. Affleck, Prieto and a group of cameramen carrying 8 mm and 16 mm cameras did such a convincing job shooting the opening mob scene that Affleck and Michael Mann's longtime editor William Goldenberg (who also edited "Gone Baby Gone") didn't need to use any stock footage. Throughout the film, Prieto's hand-held cameras "make everything feel grabbed and accidental," says Goldenberg, "finding things and pieces, like the film accidentally landed there."
Goldenberg may wind up competing with himself in the awards race this year, as he also edits "Zero Dark Thirty." He and Affleck expertly navigated "Argo"'s tricky tonal balance–while making the final escape more thrilling than it really was. In real life the Mendez and his six "house guests" wound up stranded at the airport as their flight was delayed for three hours; the CIA agent kept them calm. "Tonally each part of the film meshed together," says Goldenberg. "This time we got it right."
Affleck admits that he shoots a lot, trying many colors–at his editor's behest, of his own performance as well–and figures out the movie in the editing room. Affleck is his own toughest critic, says Goldenberg: "He is brutal." That shot of Afffleck removing his shirt (revealing a six pack) was written as Mendez emerging naked from the shower and wrapping a towel around himself. Affleck was "self-conscious" about it, Goldenberg says: "We kept trimming it. It was to show the vulnerability of the character."
Prolific composer Alexandre Desplat could also be in contention for "Argo," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Rust and Bone," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Rise of the Guardians." But last year he did not land a nomination for any of his nine films, including "The Ides of March," "The Tree of Life," "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," and the final "Harry Potter." But does the "Argo" score work for the movie? Yes. It's a careful enhancement of what is on screen without being overly manipulative. "We didn't want to point to things," says Goldenberg. "Or Hollywoodize it."
Exactly. Affleck reminds Hollywood of what the studios should be aiming for as a matter of course. Luring moviegoers back to theaters with quality movies should not be the exception that proves the rule.