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Rating: R  Grade: A

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Back in 1997, the release of “Good Will Hunting” heralded the arrival of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, two smart upstarts who seized control of their careers. Sharing a tiny apartment with Affleck’s younger brother Casey, the elder Affleck and Damon broke out of the lean and hungry pack of Hollywood strivers by writing their own ticket to the A-list. “Hunting” scored nine Academy Award nominations and two key wins, one being Original Screenplay for the duo and, suddenly, they were the toast of the town.

Affleck jumped on the blockbuster fast track, landing hunky roles in “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor,” but he also maintained loyalty to his indie roots, continuing to work with good friend Kevin Smith (“Dogma” & “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”). He was a bit all over the map, in terms of the roles and genres; it looked like he just couldn’t say no, maybe out of fear that the well would dry up. He made franchise plays with “The Sum of All Fears” and “Daredevil” that failed to pan out and then slipped up with then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez in the devastating double feature “Gigli” and “Jersey Girl.”

It was time for a change.

Ten years after the release of “Hunting,” Affleck stepped behind the camera for “Gone Baby Gone,” a gritty adaptation of one of Dennis Lehane’s thrillers, starring his younger brother. Set in seedy Boston neighborhoods, Affleck was right at home and it showed. More importantly, he was able to craft an emotional coda for the story that Lehane probably wishes he had written originally and intriguingly, Affleck displayed a way with actors that led to a supporting actress nomination for Amy Ryan.

And three years later with “The Town,” Affleck proved he was no one-trick pony. Raising the stakes, the action approached Michael Mann’s red-hot “Heat” levels and, once again, Affleck found himself caught up in a warm critical embrace. There was even another Oscar nomination – this time, supporting actor for Jeremy Renner.

Up, up and away, he goes. His new film, “Argo,” pushes further and the degree of difficulty increases exponentially. “Argo” is the untold story of the crazy plan to free six Americans holed up with the Canadian ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis. While the world watched and prayed for the hostages imprisoned by Iranian students in our own embassy, the powers that be were fretting over how to sneak out these six Americans before the Iranians discovered their existence, rounded them up and publicly executed them as spies.

The grand plan, dreamed up by CIA extractor Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), involved working with Hollywood insiders to create a fake movie being shot in Iran with the six as a Canadian film crew that Mendez would then lead out after scouting locations for their film. “Argo” walks a fine line throughout its runtime. It sets the stage, with the tension and dread of the hostage situation, merging archival footage with dramatic re-enactments seamlessly. For those who remember the 444 days of America holding its collective breath over the plight of those hostages, the fear and dread is palpable. But, once Mendez and the CIA green light the ludicrous scheme, the film hides its wolfish side in the sheepish disguise of a caper film that takes careful aim at Hollywood conventions.

It is insane, to take on what amounts to a historic period thriller with humorous elements and a hero in Mendez who we never see packing heat, but that is exactly what Affleck does and he does so like he’s the second coming of Robert Redford and George Clooney and he knows it’s going to work. And don’t be surprised if “Argo” finds itself in position to steal a little gold.