When Ben Affleck made his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone in 2007, there were a few qualities that merited special praise which have since grown into genuine strengths he has as a filmmaker. There’s a laudable focus, a pronounced sense of purpose to his storytelling. He has a nice empathy for his characters and a insightful approach to the physicality of any given sequence, including a strong command of how people move through a busy, combative world. Scenes are built and then shaped to make sure they move the story along artfully while also contributing to the thematic whole. I don’t think either of his prior films have been masterpieces, but they’ve both been commendable, hampered more by flaws apparently carried over from the respective novels from which they were adapted than any mistake Affleck made in the filmmaking beyond fidelity to his source material. However, there’s one useful truth he seemed to have well in hand in his debut that he’s since let slip his mind. It caused him some difficulty in his sophomore effort, The Town, and now it nearly sinks his latest, Argo, which would otherwise clearly stand as his best effort yet and maybe even one of the best films of the year. Ben Affleck the director has apparently forgotten that Ben Affleck the actor simply isn’t very good at acting.
Now, it’s entirely possible that Affleck was off the cast list of Gone Baby Gone not because of an admirable understanding of his own limitations and more because of a desire to avoid the distraction of double-duty responsibilities in his first feature. Perhaps he was always intending to use his directorial career as an opportunity to hand himself plum roles. If so, he’s doing his art a disservice. With a strong actor in the central role, Argo could have been something really special.
Affleck plays a CIA agent named Tony Mendez who has a specialty in extracting American citizens from volatile regions. During the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979 and 1980, Mendez is called in on discussions involving the rescue of six members of the American embassy staff that narrowly evaded capture and have been hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador ever since. Hurried by a certainty that the Iranians will soon discover six Americans are unaccounted for, which will lead to their capture or worse, Mendez convinces the U.S. government to employ a truly outlandish scheme to get the sextet out of the country: having them pose as Canadian filmmakers who were in Iran to scout locations for a potential sci-fi movie shoot. Naturally, a film plot this wildly implausible has to be based on a true story.
For the cover story Mendez cooked up to be plausible, there needed to be deep background developed, including ads and stories in the trade papers. To do so, Mendez looked to an Oscar-winning make-up artist with ties to the CIA (played by John Goodman) who in turn recruited a veteran producer (played marvelously by Alan Arkin). A major part of the pleasure of Argo is watching this odd plan come together, but Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio are measured enough to make sure the entertainment of all this showbiz chicanery doesn’t divert from the very real stakes. What could have been the film’s most boisterously enjoyable scene involves an in-costume live read of the sci-fi epic that’s a front for the operation, but it’s properly balanced by intercutting it with images of American hostages being dragged to the embassy basement where a firing squad awaits. For all the humor built into the film, it’s serious business at heart.
And that’s further reason why Affleck’s simply not up to the task of playing Mendez (never mind that most of the other casting choices seem dictated largely by actors’ resemblances to the real life figures being dramatized, which is certainly not true in the case of the Latino CIA agent whom Affleck is playing). His usual stiffness arguably works at moments, suiting a myopically focused government agent, but most of the film calls for levels of internal conflict that have never been evidently a part of Affleck’s skill set. Even a simple montage of Mendez in his hotel room the night before the scheduled escape is entirely deflated because it looks like he’s blandly bored–maybe disappointed with the lack of good cable channels on the hotel television–rather than wrestling with a highly fraught decision. It’s bad enough in a single scene, but the steady attrition caused by the weak performance entirely wears the film down, making it far less than it could be or should be.
Affleck already has an Academy Award for screenwriting, and it’s well deserved (even if I suspect that most feel the film he won it for has lost its luster over the years). He’s further demonstrated that, for him, directing films isn’t a side project affection of a movie star with too much time on his hands, but is indeed something he has some talent for. But with over thirty years experience at memorizing lines, he’s still often the weakest member of the cast. It may finally be time for him to accept that he only really belongs on one side of the camera.