Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Ben Affleck
Stars: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, Kyle Chandler, Scoot McNairy, Tate Donovan, Christopher Denham, Rory Cochrane, Clea DuVall, Kerry Bishé
Running time: 120 minutes
You know those smart-ass jokes about Ben Affleck, the ones that tirelessly call the highly publicized actor out for his past missteps, like 2003's Gigli and Daredevil, and inspiring the obnoxious term "Bennifer" by dating Jennifer Lopez? It's officially time for a post mortem, because with Argo, his expertly crafted third feature film as director, Affleck has proven that he's at the forefront of his generation's most gifted filmmakers, not to mention flat-out storytellers.
Covering a strange facet of the 1979-1980 Iranian Revolution, which stayed classified until 1997, when President Bill Clinton turned the information into public record, Argo represents a leap forward from the actor-turned-auteur's two previous directorial efforts, the gloomy and riveting 2007 flick Gone Baby Gone and 2010's Academy Award-nominated heist thriller The Town. It's both crackling popcorn entertainment and intelligently rendered, highbrow drama all rolled into one crowd-pleasing, gripping stick of cinematic dynamite. Most impressively, though, Argo is a tonal tightrope act, displaying Affleck's adroit knack for working genuinely charming levity into moments of fierce tension. It's enough to have cinephiles lobbying to get 2004's Surviving Christmas permanently deleted from IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes.
Handling double duties like a true boss, Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, authentically silly '70s hairdo and all, a hotshot CIA agent known for extracting colleagues trapped and endangered in overseas territories. And that's exactly how one would describe the six U.S. diplomats (played by a strong ensemble of character actors, including Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, and Clea DuVall) who've narrowly escaped from an Iranian protestor siege of the United States Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, a ferocious assault on unprepared workers—staged with airtight intensity and visceral elegance by Affleck in Argo's knockout of an opening sequence—that left 52 people held captive by pissed-off Iranians.
With a higher ranking CIA crony (Bryan Cranston) by his side, Mendez takes it upon himself to lead the rescue mission, but he's devoid of a killer idea. That is, until he chats with his 10-year-old son on the telephone one night as the kid is watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Inspired by that 1973 sci-fi sequel, Mendez dreams up a wild yet promising strategy: He'll head to Tehran, join up with the six diplomats, and pretend the they're a Hollywood film crew scouting locations for a "$20 million Star Wars ripoff" called Argo.
After some prep work alongside a wisecracking special effects specialist (a hilarious John Goodman) and a seasoned, grizzled movie producer (an equally spot-on, funny Alan Arkin), Mendez heads to Tehran to carry out the mission. It doesn't run as smoothly as he, his CIA cohorts, or President Jimmy Carter had hoped.
And once the plan gets underway, Argo never stops moving, mounting a gradual sense of dread and tightening its high-stakes tautness with every sharp line of dialogue and potentially disastrous run-in with untrusting Iranians. The film does have one notable flaw, though, which keeps it from achieving the sheer excellence it so nearly reaches: None of the characters are given more than a surface-level dimension, save for Mendez, yet even Argo's brief and minimal reminders about his wife and son back home feel more gratuitous than gratifying. The acting is first-class across the board, especially from Affleck, who gives Mendez, the film's omnipresent anchor, the resilience and confidence of a man who's been in the trenches many times before but also maintains a firm grasp on the possible downsides of his immensely challenging job.
It's a finely tuned performance, one made all the more admirable by the fact that Affleck pulls it off while also controlling all of Argo's behind-the-camera moves. From the film's thrilling start to its nail-biting finish, the feeling that Affleck and his associates are focused on the mechanics of the rescue plot and its subsequent risks is never lost, and Argo's meager amount of character development loses any deal-breaking impact as a result. As thinly written as they all are, everyone from Mendez to the diplomats and the CIA employees back in America propel the narrative forward without ever interrupting the captivating, word-driven action. They're simply the chess pieces that Affleck tactically uses to relay Mendez's unbelievable true story.
Affleck's dedication to the material's integrity is matched by his superb awareness of audience enjoyment, and the ways in which he balances the two lift Argo above straightforward awards season bait and into the stratosphere of accessible, all-inclusive cinema. Particularly whenever Goodman and Arkin share the screen, in sequences that poke fun at the movie industry's inner workings with a slickness that's effectively humorous without seeming like insider baseball, the film is a sharply scribed hoot. One-liners like "Argo fuck yourself," and Goodman's FX schlockmeister's response to a question about his target audience ("People with eyes.") hit with an easily enjoyable comedic impact.
In Argo's engrossing third act, though, Affleck shows just how skilled he is at weaving laughs into rigidity. Edge-of-your-seat scenes give way to unexpected levity, releasing the valve, so to speak, before Affleck quickly applies the pressure once again with the seamlessness of a bona fide pro. You'd never believe that, only nine years ago, he was one of Hollywood's biggest laughing stocks. But look at him now; the guy who shit the bed in early 2000s duds like Reindeer Games is constructing a cinematic living space that could well be filled with gold statues come February 2013. How does "Boscar" sound?
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)