By Toni Kan
Ben Affleck described himself at the 2013 Screen Actors Guild awards as having a second act of sorts and what a blast he is having.
Form Gone, Baby Gone to The Town and now Argo, Affleck continues to show us that the Academy Award success of his collaborative effort with his buddy, Matt Damon on Good, Will Hunting was no fluke.
He might have made bad career choices (Gigli, anyone) and lived the movie star life for a spell, but there is no denying his talent. Ben Affleck was born to make movies.
In The Town, he takes a simple thriller and turns it into a stark and perspicacious psychological exploration of the limits of friendship and the road to redemption.
But it is in Argo that he fully blossoms and for once it is safe to say that he lost nothing by passing over the chance to direct the hit TV series, Homeland.
Argo is a movie that reminds you immediately of “Playwriting 101” where we were taught about a “play within a play”. Argo works that binary; it is a movie about a fake movie set up as a CIA covert operation to help spring six people from Iran just at the dawn of the revolution, right in the heat of the US embassy hostage crisis.
The story is a simple one and is based on an article, “The Canadian Caper”. The Shah of Iran is overthrown and the Ayatollah Khomeini returns to declare an Islamic state. The Shah, who is cancer-ridden, flees to the US and in demanding for his return to face trial and the hangman, Iranians led by student revolutionaries breach the walls of the American embassy and take the staff hostage. The crisis lasts for all of 444 days.
But just as the wall is breached, six Americans working at the embassy head out through a side street and walk into freedom but it is freedom that doesn’t come easy. They are refused refuge by the British and Swedish ambassadors but finally find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.
Their new digs is comfortable but inconvenient. The ambassador and his wife have an Iranian house-keeper Sahar, who may or may not have compromised the situation of the Americans and with time ticking, the CIA has to find a way to get them out of Iran; an undertaking that is more difficult than getting a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
In, steps CIA Ex Fil agent, Tony Mendez a.k.a. Mark Harkins, with an audacious and ingenious plan. Set up a fake movie project to be shot in Iran then use that as a pretext to get the six out of Ayatollah’s grip.
Simple, right, well not so simple people when you consider that spies are executed summarily and the airport is swarming with western-educated Iranian guards, who can spot an American from a mile away.
Ben Affleck who is on double duty as director and lead actor gives us a beautiful movie that leaves us white-knuckled, our hearts in our mouth with tension so thick it is almost suffocating.
Watching Argo, I was reminded of two movies, the Sally Field and Alfred Molina movie, Not without My Daughter because it was set in Iran and dealt with an escape then Mystic River directed by Clint Eastwood by whom Ben Affleck’s legacy would mostly be compared to in years to come.
Mystic River came to mind because of the psychological intensity in not being sure of where the dice will fall. The “what-happens-nextness” of it all is a killer. In Argo, one of the characters is so cynical of Harkin’s plan that he pooh-poohs everything he says.
“Have you done this before?” he asks with dripping cynicism.
That tension, that unspoken rage and anger and fear made for good cinema in both movies but where Ben Affleck’s Mark Harkin character is driven by fear and his overwhelming sense of responsibility, Sean Penn’s character Jimmy Markum is driven by grief and rage at what he senses is the ultimate betrayal.
Ben Affleck does something amazing with the multiplicity of voices. By constantly evoking talking heads and crisscrossing views and comments he evokes that overwhelming sense of confusion and displacement and lostness once must feel in a place where he or she has no control over the language or his own life and where diplomacy and reason have no bearing.
We get a sense of this when, at the beginning of the movie, the Head of Security asks the Marines to let him out. Once he gets out, the Iranians grab him and it’s all downhill from there. His “Let me reason with them” is ironic in its emptiness.
Ben Affleck is adept at evoking the nuances of human drama; the personal failings and tragedies that leave lives hanging askew and he has a sense for actors who bring his characters to life. The casting for Old Les played by Alan Arkin is spot on and so is the Oscar-winning Chambers played by John Goodman.
Two things come to mind as you watch Argo; how much the world has changed and America’s place in it. It is amazing to see that America wasn’t as trigger-happy as it is now. In the movie, Jimmy Carter appears almost as a weak leader unable to take action for all of one year.
The second is what I choose to see as the inherent goodness in human beings no matter their colour or race or nationality. When Sahar the house-keeper says to her employer: “Your guests, Madam, they never go out,” one witnesses one of the most loaded moments in modern cinema. It is a question weighed downed with unspoken dread.
We then wait, no suffer, for over an hour to see how Sahar plays her hand.
America’s cultural hegemony shines through out the movie and shows us how long Hollywood has towered above all else and how it will never go anywhere. At the airport, the guards are mesmerised by the description of the movie’s story-board and though they are unlearned Iranians they can identify with the tropes of American sci-fi movies as well as the universal ideals of revolution and freedom as well as the triumph of good over evil.
Then, there is that border scene at Iraq, which leaves one shaking his head at the fact that Iraq was once a better place than Iran.
Argo is a movie that manages to, like Zero Dark Thirty, keep you at the edge of your seat with dreadful anticipation even though you already know how the story ends. Ben Affleck ratchets the tension very high at the end when the Swissair plane is cleared for take-off.
At that point, one watches scared not just for the characters but for one’s heart. Damn well done, Ben!
• Toni Kan writes from Lagos