Could anyone have predicted ten years ago the path that Ben Affleck has taken? To go from being the butt of countless ‘Bennifer’ jokes, prancing around Hollywood in terrycloth jumpsuits, to being one of the most interesting, well-composed film-makers working today? Audiences love a comeback story, and that’s precisely what Affleck has given us, with three excellent films under his belt, the best of which, Argo, is a genuine front-runner for best film of 2012.
It’s possible that Ben Affleck’s skill as a director and (as his fantastic work in Argo can attest) actor, owes a great deal to his time right in the centre of the public eye. Rebuilding his credibility as an artist to be taken seriously must have been no mean feat, given the ridiculous level of tabloid exposure he had, but by turning his attention to slow-burn thoughtful fare such as Argo he has all but removed himself from public life and simply lets the quality of the work speak for itself.
Argo is a fascinating story, so absurd that it can only be true. Concerning a covert mission to rescue six American citizens in hiding during the Iranian hostage crisis of the early 1980s, it’s deeply serious material, but with an almost farcical edge. And while Affleck certainly takes many opportunities to inject humour into the film, the stakes are so high that when the extraction actually begins, the level of suspense stretches the limits of endurance.
Bizarrely, the film makes an interesting counterpoint to last year’s suspense highlight Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Where that film relied on outlandish stunts and huge suspension of disbelief to perch us on the edge of our seats however, Affleck’s languid pacing works perfectly for Argo. Creative license is assumed, but the realism permeates every frame. M:I’s Ethan Hunt is for all intents and purposes a superhero, whereas Tony Mendez (Affleck) is simply a man, albeit an expert as his specific vocation. He appears to take everything in stride, right down to his troubled home life, and Affleck’s enigmatic performance is easy to overlook, but absolutely grounds the film.
It’s character work that gives nothing away yet says so much, and if he appears to take everything in stride, it’s simply because he must. This is a man who prepares for the worst so he won’t be caught unawares when it happens, and as such he seems a little distant, aloof as to whether the mission succeeds. Yet small moments give him away, betraying his intense investment in what he does. It’s not flashy, but it’s a very well pitched performance.
As good as Affleck is in his dual role as star and director, this is by no means a one man show. Alongside a mightily impressive cast including Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, the film is beautifully shot with wonderful period detail, and Alexandre Desplat’s clever, lively score adds the exciting spy film atmosphere that is absent from the script.
Argo is a triumph, an old-fashioned example of how to make tense, exciting adult drama, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that Affleck’s film will be a key player on the coming award circuit, and deservedly so.