Argo (2012)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, .Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Richard Dillane, Keith Szarabajka.

Director: Ben Affleck
Rating: R (for language and some violent images.)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Date: October 12, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $TBD

GK Films, Smoke House, and Warner Bros. Pictures.

Written by: Chris Terrio, adapted from the article “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran” written by Joshuah Bearman.

This review was featured at The Rogue Valley Messenger.
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(out of 5 stars)

There are a lot of things I love about the movies.  Unexpected surprises are at the top of the list.  Uncovering a terrific small independent film and spreading the word about it in the hopes it earns a bigger and wider audience is another.  A career-defining, soul-baring performance likewise ranks high.  But as someone who watches more than 200 films or so each year, I also love when a filmmaker I have been raving about for years, finally delivers a film that not only validates all the good I believed I saw in their work, but essentially silences his/her critics once and for all.

For Ben Affleck, Argo is that film.

Undeniably one of 2012′s finest movies, Argo is beautifully orchestrated theater, a masterpiece of high tension and suspense, centered around the retelling of a historical event so impressively staged, that you are convinced to doubt what you know to be true, only to then have that faith in the story rewarded in a most riveting manner.  For those who watch movies for fun, as an escape, or study them with a more technical and critical eye, Argo wins across-the-board.  And confirms for those of us who have been singing his praises with his two previous films, Gone Baby Gone and The Town – Ben Affleck is one fantastic filmmaker.

After President Bill Clinton declassified the  documentation during his second term, Joshuah Bearman wrote an article in 2007 for Wired Magazine detailing the incredible true story of how the C.I.A. came up with a plan in 1979 to shoot a fake science-fiction film in Iran, while orchestrating a dangerous and risky freeing of six diplomats sheltered in the Canadian Ambassador’s home.  All of this transpiring during the height of the Iranian Revolution when Islamic militants held 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for a gut-wrenching 79 days.

Argo depicts the planning, staging, and execution of the C.I.A. plan vividly, with screenwriter Chris Terrio’s debut screenplay bustling with nervous energy and bubbling dialogue.  Standing as the centerpiece of the film is Affleck as Tony Mendez, the overseer of covert C.I.A. operations and a disguises expert, who helps find and patch in the key figures involved in the ruse, later dubbed “The Canadian Caper” in the years following its success.  After listening to a wealth of poorly planned ideas and strategic and logistical nightmare scenarios that Mendez recognizes will never work, he reaches out to Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, playing a composite of Hollywood producer-types) and Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to help create the backdrop for the fake science-fiction film scenario.

After selling government officials on the “best bad idea they have”, the three men takes the plan seriously, with Siegel informing Mendez that that if he is making a fake film, it will be a hit.  Soon the  production team are operating out of a fake production office, securing the rights to an abysmal but pliable screenplay to use as a means in executing their plan.

A good friend and fellow critic pointed out in a recent conversation that had Ben Affleck made Argo prior to his other two films, the film would have likely been a bit tedious, overlong, and perhaps lack proper focus.  Her observation is astute because while I am a big fan of Affleck’s earlier films, they do have a softness and rambling scope.  None of those complaints can be placed upon Argo, Affleck’s film tight, efficient, and urgent. 

After an effective civics lesson opens the picture, we are immersed in escalating conflict as the Iranian uprising occurs, the Embassy overrun and those hostages quickly realized.  Shot in a whirling and captivating manner by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain), it is stunning how quickly these characters find themselves immersed in chaos.

Shifting tone and intensities throughout the film, we see the strategy sessions in government headquarters, the unnerving day-to-day moments in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence, the hostages held day-to-day in the Embassy.  Affleck ratchets up the tension scene by scene, building to a breathtaking final 40-45 minutes where the plan’s execution grows more and more tenuous the further along it goes.

Balancing the emotional anxiety are two fine and winning comedic turns from Oscar-winner Alan Arkin and John Goodman.  Playing into Hollywood stereotypes somewhat, Arkin’s irascible distant cousin to his Little Miss Sunshine character hits every mark, while Goodman’s kinder, more accessible John Chambers induces sincere smiles and laughter.  If anything, Arkin and Goodman are underused here and I would have loved to have seen more of their gifts on display.

That we see them as bookends to the film is ultimately the right decision because as Mendez arrives at his destination, and the shock and awe washes over these six diplomats in how they are going to be brought home, the hopelessness, disbelief, and ultimate acceptance from all parties takes over and pays huge dividends to the overall effectiveness of the film.  Chris Terrio certainly deserves awards recognition for his brilliant writing, which gives everything proper and equal weight, his screenplay offering depth and humanity to all involved, including a wonderful scene where Iranian inspectors are given the Argo storyboards, clearly depicting the ridiculous but completely plausible movie that will never see the light of day.

Where do I stop?  Argo is better than anticipated, signaling a permanent placemarker for Ben Affleck as one of today’s most gifted and studious filmmakers.  In terms of his leading performance as Tony Mendez, Affleck also impresses with a strong but never dominating performance. Both in front of and behind the camera, Affleck is cool, steady, and unflappable, confidently and boldly ushering us through a most remarkable story. 

One of the most powerful moments in Argo comes with that immediate realization, when the credits roll, that you have just seen something unforgettable.  Funny but never overbearing, intense but always believable, complex and thorough but never heavy-handed or blustering with political agendas, Argo decisively succeeds.  Remember this come Oscar time because Argo is, without question, one of the best films you will see in 2012.

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • Delivering anxious thrills, laugh out loud humor, and a captivating story expertly well, Argo is the best film I have seen thus far in 2012.  Slated for multiple Oscar nominations up and down the line.
  • Ben Affleck leads an impressive ensemble cast through a riveting and compelling, if not completely unfathomable, historical event.  Almost as unbelievable as it is true.
  • If you liked Affleck’s previous films Gone Baby Gone and The Town, this will make you smile ear to ear.  If you have been on the fence with those films or Affleck himself as an actor, he puts all those doubts to rest.
NO
  • You are adverse to good films, commercially tinged or otherwise.
  • I suppose the film may seem like more of an action film than a thriller, or more politically charged, thus making it appear off-putting to certain viewers.  The film does nothing to limit its audience, except implementing a few moments of violence and a particular R-rated catchphrase that becomes gleefully adopted by Mendez and his team.
  • Just see it.  There is no good reason to avoid Argo.  I love this film.
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