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Oscar Watch: Why Affleck's 'Argo' Hits the Zeitgeist, Early Reviews

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 17, 2012 at 3:56PM

Ben Affleck has another hit due to arrive in theaters October 12. But "Argo," his third feature as director, will be even more commercially successful than 2007's "Gone Baby Gone" and 2012's "The Town," which earned Jeremy Renner a supporting actor nomination. That's because while Affleck understood that the film is timely--unrest in the Middle East has not dissipated since the true 1980 events depicted here--he could not have known that a mob assault on a U.S. consulate would make news headlines just as his film made its Toronto debut.
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Argo

Ben Affleck has another hit due to arrive in theaters October 12. But "Argo," his third feature as director, will be even more commercially successful than 2007's "Gone Baby Gone" and 2012's "The Town," which earned Jeremy Renner a supporting actor nomination. That's because while Affleck understood that the film is timely--unrest in the Middle East has not dissippated since the true 1980 events depicted here--he could not have known that a mob assault on a U.S. consulate would make news headlines just as his film made its Toronto debut.

That added gravitas will help "Argo" ride the zeitgiest not only at the box office but in the awards race. Movies that tell us more about ourselves tend to do well. On the other hand, another film that rides the current news cycle, Kathryn Bigelow's late-year release about the capture of Osama bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty," could steal some of "Argo"'s thunder.

At the Toronto after party, though, Affleck was all smiles as he celebrated with buddy Matt Damon, Harvey Weinstein, Warners honcho Jeff Robinov, and producer Grant Heslov, who let the project go as a possible vehicle for George Clooney. They know how rare it is for a modestly-budgeted drama to ride the wave as an accessibly entertaining yet serious movie that plays both mainstream and smart. Affleck likes directing himnself, and admits that he made the call not to play CIA agent Tony Mendez as an Hispanic male. And he defended his statements on a Telluride panel about many Americans learning their history from films (see video below).

So far "Argo" is earning mostly rave reviews (94% Fresh). (My review is here.)

THR:

"a crackerjack political thriller told with intelligence, great period detail and a surprising amount of nutty humor."

Screen International:

"it combines an incredible true story with crafty thriller conventions to produce a crowd-pleasing drama that should go down easy with Oscar voters."

The Guardian:

"an entertaining, if shamelessly embellished account of one of the CIA's strangest operations."

ThePlaylist:

"'Argo' is impressive and now feels like the actor-turned-director's time to earn serious plaudits.  Extraordinarily suspenseful, extremely well-told and effortless in its complex tonal balance, the Telluride Film Festival couldn't have asked for a better opener; a captivating and thoughtful true-life drama that boasts a story so astonishing, it could only be told in the movies. [A-]"

Details profiles the actor-turned-director in a candid conversation that ranges from the path from "Daredevil" (of which Affleck is not a fan) to directing himself in "Argo," inspired by the masters of filmmaking as well as how far he and Obama have come from 2003. A taste below:

How Affleck directs Affleck:

"Every single director-actor I talked to, from Warren Beatty to Clint Eastwood to George Clooney, said the biggest mistake they made is not shooting enough footage of themselves. You go back to the editing room and you have virtually nothing to work with. And you think, 'I could've done better—a director would have pushed me to do more.' So I just said, 'Okay, I'll push myself to do more.'...the direction of myself happened in the editing room. I found myself to be the easiest person to cut because I'm so critical of myself. There are some actors you just fall in love with. I don't have that issue."

Affleck on the Masters:

"I have a lot of influences. I like to sit down with the cinematographer a month before, and we'll watch pieces of 20 or 30 movies. You're basically the sum of all the experiences you've ever had, and they're sort of shaken up in you and reproduced in the things you create, and that includes seeing movies. And I think you're made better by watching the masters, that's for sure."

Affleck on 2003 and Obama:

"People bring up 2003, and I get it. Jennifer Lopez, and 'Gigli,' and all this shit just kind of blew up. But, you know, in 2003, Barack Obama was a state senator in Illinois! Okay?...And also, I got married, and I got older. And had kids. You know, the current of the river of life moves you downstream anyway. But I definitely reject the narrative that says, you know, Bad Guy Turned It Around. My life isn't Behind the Music. I wasn't a criminal!"

This article is related to: Reviews, Ben Affleck, Ben Affleck, Critics, Festivals, Argo


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.