TELLURIDE -- When the lights in the Chuck Jones Theatre went down for the annual patron's screening here, festival co-director Julie Huntsinger quickly introduced Oscar-winner Ben Affleck. This screening is famously held before all others at the fest, and is open only to specially-credentialed attendees who are not told what they're seeing until they are inside the theater.
This high-profile slot, the first at Telluride, is almost always reserved for a highly-anticipated awards contender -- last year's was the world premiere of Alexander Payne's The Descendants, which went on to score a best picture Oscar nomination -- and this year proved to be no exception. Affleck introduced the fest audience - and the world - to his third feature as a director, Argo.
The dramatic thriller, which chronicles a little known aspect of the 1979-1980 Iranian hostage crisis, will also play at next week's Toronto International Film Festival before being released by Warner Bros. on Oct. 14. Affleck reiterated to the audience, "You are the first people to see the movie," before laughingly adding, "the first paying people." He called it "a labor of love" and said it was "really special" to be able to premiere it at one of the few remaining festivals at which people care about films above all else.
Precisely two hours later, the audience showed just how much it cared about his particular film -- which, at various times, manages to be an edge-of-your-seat thriller ("We did suicide missions in the Army that had better odds than this"), a laugh-out-loud comedy ("You're worried about the Ayatolah? Try the WGA!"), and a genuine tearjerker -- by awarding it a 30-second sustained ovation. They also separately applauded when Affleck's credit appeared -- he not only directed but also stars in the film -- and also when the names of Oscar-winner Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who play key supporting characters in the film, flashed on the screen.
The story of the rescue effort was kept classified by both Canadians and American officials for decades. As it turns out, Hollywood played an integral part in the American government's effort. As the script says, U.S. officials' "best bad idea" would be to try to convince the Iranians that the six Americans in question were Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for "a $20 million Star Wars ripoff."
Affleck, who showed tremendous promise as a director with his first two features, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), continues his forward progress with this film, of which he seems as much in command as any of the three. It is authentically grounded in the late 1970s/early 1980s in every possible respect -- from on-screen props, to the grain and muted color of the film stock with which it was shot, right down to shots of the 1970s-era decayed Hollywood sign and Warner Bros. logo that precedes the film's opening credits and animated recap of the aforementioned history. In fact, if Argo was screened alongside a Sydney Pollack thriller of that same era such as Three Days of the Condor (1975), a viewer could be forgiven for thinking both works came from the same filmmaker.
This film tells one of those stories that sounds almost too absurd to be true, but in a way that makes the audience want to roll with it. I expect the Hollywood community -- which loves nothing more than seeing itself depicted in good movies, as demonstrated by the success of The Artist less than a year ago -- to like it as much as anyone. I think that it is a very solid contender to score Oscar nominations for best picture and best adapted screenplay (Chris Terrio used an article by Joshuah Bearman as the basis of his script); has a decent shot at a best actor nom for Affleck and best supporting actor noms for Arkin and Goodman (whose prospects may actually be hurt by the strength of the entire ensemble); and might well compete for best costume design (Oscar-winner Jacqueline West) and best original score (perennial Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat).
Interestingly and troublingly, the relationship between the US and Iranian governments is more strained today than at any time since the era in which this film takes place -- which should only increase interest in the film.
- Ben Affleck