Ben Affleck in ‘Argo’/Photo © Claire Folger/Warner Bros
Ever since it debuted in a sneak screening at the Telluride film festival, Ben Affleck’s “Argo” has become the pacesetter in this year’s Oscar race, occupying an enviable position as both a crowd-pleasing dramedy-of-the-absurd and a thought-provoking critics’ pet with political overtones. Or, as Matt Damon put it earlier this week at a clubby steak dinner celebrating the film’s New York premiere: “It’s a ’70s movie.”
Damon was referring to the style more than the substance of Affleck’s politically charged true story of a CIA agent who stages a hair-brained attempt to rescue six victims of the 1970s Iranian Hostage Crisis using a fake B-Movie crew as his Trojan horse. But it’s an apt description that applies on several levels to both the film and the swanky event kicking off its theatrical run (due in theaters on Friday) and positioning it as the kind of serious-minded red meat Academy members can’t resist.
Wednesday night’s gathering, held at the Porter House restaurant at the Time Warner Center, was clearly designed to send the message that “Argo” itself is a newsworthy political event that also happens to be a funny and wildly entertaining movie. While most premieres consist of a clutch of entertainment journalists orbiting a small cluster of supporting stars in between passes at a finger-food buffet, Argo’s coming-out party more closely resembled an old school Hollywood-Washington summit, where high-powered political journalists, like Time’s Joe Klein sat down to an intimate dinner alongside an A-List array of stars, including Affleck, Damon, George Clooney, Oliver Stone, Sting, Michael Douglas, and (randomly) half the cast of “Girls.”
Klein, who logged many years covering the Middle East throughout his career as a political correspondent, marveled at the film’s accuracy in capturing Persian culture during that period. “Affleck did a fantastic job,” Klein remarked, waving to Clooney as he breezed by. “He must have used every Persian extra in Los Angeles.”
The high-minded conviviality of the soiree felt like such a throwback, one half expected to find Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson rehashing last week’s presidential debate with Damon and Affleck. The film itself self-consciously plays as throwback to the creative experimentation and unregulated excess of the Me Decade. In nearly every scene, Affleck pays homage to such classic political thrillers from the era as “The Parallax View,” “Three Days of the Condor,” and “All the President’s Men.”
What separates ’70s political thrillers from more recent attempts at civically minded filmmaking (think: “Lions for Lambs”) is that audiences and critics embraced them equally. These days, it has become standard operating procedure for filmmakers and studio execs to divide films into two categories: art and commerce, and never the twain shall meet. And it shows. It’s no wonder moviegoers stay away from films like “North Country” or “Fast Food Nation,” when Hollywood begrudgingly makes and markets them as an eat-your-vegetables act of piety. And when no one shows up on opening weekend, pundits blame everything from the internet to reality TV for killing America’s appetite for smart, socially resonant filmmaking.
But in the past few years, many of the stars assembled at the “Argo” premiere have been the prime movers behind a movement to revert back to the ‘70s approach to making films that are both edifying and entertaining. Clooney has lead the charge, throwing his star power behind a series of politically inflected films that also happen to be funny, engaging, suspenseful, or all of the above. Imagine that. Beginning with his directorial debut, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” based on Chuck Barris’ memoir about moonlighting as a CIA agent while hosting the Gong Show, Clooney has had a hand in producing or directing a new wave of issue-oriented thrillers and dark comedies, including “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “The Ides of March,” “Syriana,” “Michael Clayton,” and “The Informant!” The last of these films was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who has also been a pivotal force in reviving the cinematic sensibility pioneered by iconic filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby, Alan J. Pakula, and Sydney Pollack.
Affleck has already established himself as an heir apparent to that ‘70s pantheon: After refining his directorial chops with a pair of taught genre adaptations – “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” – he applied those audience engagement skills to “Argo,” a multifaceted stranger-than-fiction period piece about American incompetence (and policy failure) in the Middle East. Damon isn’t far behind Affleck. He recently turned attention to cracking the code to embedding polarizing social issues into entertaining cinematic storytelling with “Promised Land,”an intimate dramedy he co-wrote with John Krasinski, about tensions erupting in an economically depressed small town when an oil company proposes to frack the oil out of its land. Damon was initially attached to direct but ultimately ceded the job to his go-to collaborator, Gus Van Sant, due to time constraints. But he’s said unequivocally that directing is his endgame.
Indeed, at the “Argo” premiere Damon could barely contain his excitement about Affleck’s success in retrofitting the filmmaking (and marketing) process to more closely resemble the old model, merging quality and commerciality. And he’s only slightly less bullish about the prospects of “Promised Land” to do the same. “It’s a really good film and I’m proud of it,” Damon said, with a sly grin. “Now I just hope people go see it.”