Thursday November 8, 2012

HARRISVILLE, N.H.

Argo -- There was a time when Ben Affleck was best known for not being Matt Damon. Following the Cinderella success story the pair had winning an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for "Good Will Hunting" in 1997, the actors’ respective careers took very different paths.

Matt Damon went on to what now seems a preordained fate as a 21st century movie star by landing high-profile roles in movies like "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), the "Ocean’s Eleven" series, and redefining the male action hero in "The Bourne Identity" movies.

In comparison, Ben Affleck seemed unsure what to do with his newfound fame. He betrayed his early indie successes in movies like "Dazed and Confused" (1993) and "Chasing Amy" (1997) for a detour directly into Hollywood Hell.

This rocky road was paved with forgettable formulaic dreck like "Armageddon" (1998), "Pearl Harbor" (2001), and "The Sum of All Fears" (2002). It reached its nadir in "Gigli" (2003), a movie so reviled, it became best known as a Hollywood punch line. Whereas Matt Damon’s appearance in a movie immediately suggested a certain stamp of quality considering the reliability of his career choices, Affleck’s presence was quickly establishing exactly the opposite.

As it turns out, perhaps Affleck merely hadn’t found his calling yet. He stepped behind the camera in 2007 to make his directorial debut with "Gone Baby Gone" and subsequently silenced many of his former critics. Combining a compelling missing persons story with gritty Boston locations and a clutch of authentic performances, the movie proved to be better than anything the actor Ben Affleck had made since, well, "Good Will Hunting."

It was no mere fluke either, as 2010’s "The Town" proved to be just as good. Again featuring intense, naturalistic performances, a superb use of authentic Boston locations, and a gripping, tension-filled heist story, "The Town" was as hair-raising as it was heartfelt.

His new movie "Argo" proves that Ben Affleck’s career has made a complete turnaround. It successfully serves as not only the best film of his career but suggests that Ben Affleck the director is a force to be reckoned with.

"Argo" is the kind of story that only Hollywood could make up, yet it really happened. Back in 1979, when the United States Embassy in Teheran, Iran, was stormed by Ayatollah Khomeini’s militant supporters and 50 hostages were taken, it was a dire situation that had the whole world watching. Amidst the chaos, six Americans had managed to escape onto the streets of the city for an uncertain future.

Knowing full well that these six individuals would possibly be executed if discovered, the Carter Administration scrambled to hatch a plan to smuggle these Americans out of the country to safety. Few knew the extent of the propositions they were willing to entertain.

Considering his acting career, perhaps it is Affleck’s personal experience with the level of farce inherent in a Hollywood production that helps make the fake production of a movie to rescue this group of Americans so captivating. What Affleck does so well as a director here is balance these two opposing styles, combining the grave seriousness and historical importance of the hostage situation in Iran with the farcical, fictional world of Hollywood, two worlds that could not be more opposite if they tried.

Merely the notion of bringing a big-budget science fiction movie production into the chaos of Iran after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 is a proposition so ludicrous that only Hollywood could cook it up. Which also makes it, as CIA officer Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) mentions in the film, the "best bad idea they have" at their disposal.

Meanwhile the period setting is spot-on here, with vintage television footage and turn-of-the-decade hairstyles and fashion choices contributing to the movie’s entertainment value. In fact, it’s emblematic of the film itself, and how it works on multiple levels -- as a period film, a historical document, a dark comedy and a nail-biting thriller. Combining all these opposing forces is a tricky maneuver to pull off, but Affleck shifts the tone here deftly and with ease.

This combination of elements also brings real dimension to the film, creating an exciting, tension-filled experience despite the fact that the story’s outcome is already known. Perhaps this is the film’s greatest accomplishment, providing a snapshot into a period of American history that had long been suppressed as classified for decades due to its politically sensitive nature. It is to director Ben Affleck’s credit that he has given this period of history such an entertaining and compelling vehicle in which to finally set the record straight.

Rated R.

Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.