Now that the third film he’s directed is in theaters, it’s safe to say that Ben Affleck has turned a corner: The erstwhile Daredevil and Matt Damon BFF officially makes movies for grown-ups. Argo is Affleck’s most ambitious film to date, taking place across the globe instead of in his cozy Boston hometown. It also tackles a true and internationally remembered story: the Iran hostage crisis that took place between 1979 and 1981. We all know that, after 444 days, the hostages were released. (A few minutes after President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated—conveniently.) What most of us don’t know is detailed in Argo, a rather spectacular story based on information that President Bill Clinton declassified in 1997.
Argo focuses on six American diplomats (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, and Kerry Bishé) who evaded capture during an uprising in Iran. Iranians were calling for the blood of the overthrown (and U.S.-supported) Shah; during a protest, students overtook the U.S. Embassy, and the six ran. These virtual hostages found shelter at the Canadian Embassy, where they helplessly languished, hoping their government would find a way to rescue them. The CIA kicked around admittedly bad plots until they came up with “the best bad idea we have”: faking a movie to be shot in Iran and having the six pose as a Canadian-born crew, able to slickly slip out of Tehran when their “set-scouting” was finished. Well, at least they hoped the escape would be slick.
Affleck not only directs but stars as CIA operative Tony Mendez, who travels to Iran posing as a producer of the film (titled Argo) and drills the six on their phony identities before attempting to fly them to Zurich. He’s the serious (and ’70s-shaggy) part of the fake filmmaking team, which also includes Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel, a Roger Cormanesque director/producer, and John Goodman as John Chambers, a makeup artist. What Affleck, as a real filmmaker, manages to do remarkably is balance comedy and drama in this two-hour film, switching to a lighthearted, jokey tone midway when Tony, Lester, and John hatch their scheme. The one-liners never feel forced, disrespectful, or out of place; soon enough, the film seamlessly slips back to dead-serious. Affleck even gets a self-deprecating jab in: When talking to Lester about the possibility of trying to school someone outside the industry enough to pose as a director, Lester says, “I could teach a rhesus monkey how to be a director in a day.”
As solid and engrossing as Argo is, however, don’t believe all the hype—it falls short of exceptional. Affleck is assured in both his directing (trademark move: facial close-ups, to capture every nuance) and acting, and after a long section of logistics, logistics, logistics, the film does get tense. But we know the end of this plot, and in the end, there’s just not enough flair there—at least to merit the Oscar buzz the film has already generated. It’s simply a welcome throwback to airtight storytelling and the kind of government-themed, ’70s-era thrillers that once left you on the edge of your seat. Argo, however, never entices you to do more than sit back and enjoy the ride.