Argo Review

(3.5 STARS)

Ben Affleck’s Argo will make you rethink how much you complain about going through customs at the airport. It seems unfathomable that such a typically mundane and slow-moving event could lead to the tensest bit of American filmmaking so far this year, but that’s what Affleck does with this, his third film.

Of course, his film does a lot more than just depict people going through customs. Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck’s freshman and sophomore directorial efforts, each captured a South Boston with real personality. Neither personality was particularly pleasant, but they added to the atmosphere within those respective films in really interesting ways. His ability to use his surroundings to add to a film’s atmosphere has only improved with the move to the Tehran of 1979 and 1980. It’s a frightening place that gives a much needed layer of emotion to this superficially cold story and its thinly drawn characters. Yes, Argo has some small flaws, but they’re barely worth mentioning when the final product satisfies so thoroughly.

Argo opens with a quick retelling of the events leading up to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, including the overthrow of the shah (a puppet of the West) and the ascent to power of Ayatollah Khomeini. President Carter grants the shah asylum in the United States, and hoards of angry Iranian citizens rush the American embassy, taking its workers hostage until they can try and punish their former leader for his alleged crimes.

During the raid and its ensuing chaos, six embassies workers manage to escape and are holed up at the residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). CIA and state officials back in America are stumped about how to get these individuals out, as their presence is putting Taylor and his wife at risk. One man proposes they bike 300 miles to Turkey, but extraction specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) knows that plan is shit.

He proposes a plan so outrageous that a colleague (Bryan Cranston) calls it the “best bad idea we have.” Mendez will set up a fake movie studio. He involves two Hollywood hotshots (Alan Arkin and John Goodman) to start production on “Argo”—a science-fiction fantasy adventure. Mendez will enter Iran under the guise of a location scout. He’ll carry fake Canadian passports for his six marks, and they’ll try to escape together—a task that’s much easier said than done when thousands upon thousands of Iranians are armed and ferocious in their hunt for Americans.

The film grabs you straight away with the siege of the embassy, which is at first slow before exploding into something that’ll almost overwhelm you, especially when one considers recent current events. The American flag is burned. Innocent men and women are blindfolded at gunpoint. And one man and his wife make a stunning sacrifice for six strangers. Affleck lets these events unfold slowly and with minimal stylistic intrusion.

When Argo shifts back to America—Washington and Hollywood, specifically—it becomes quite funny. Arkin and Goodman, in particular, are outstanding and give birth to one of the best catch phrases of any movie in a long time. By the time Mendez gets to Iran, Argo starts to feel a little long in the tooth, but its conclusion is a thing of beauty. The editing and the score maximize tension brilliantly, but it’s because we ultimately grow to care about these characters—characters we know so little about personally—that the intensity of their plight is palpable. It’s slight of hand few directors could pull off this well, but Affleck has grown into one of the most reliable and talented American filmmakers working today, which seems simply unbelievable but is almost undeniable at this point in his career.

He’s grown as an actor, as well, and though his character could have been some kind of James Bond-esque superhero, Affleck goes low-key with him. It’s a smart choice, as the story itself can get the unofficial first billing instead. Cranston, meanwhile, has a nice role that might not earn him an Oscar nomination (the most likely in the bunch is Arkin), but his screen credits are starting to match his incredible television resume.

Argo doesn’t stretch the bounds of cinema at all, but it’s a masterclass in how to tell a story. It helps that the story Affleck is trying to tell is this grand, almost surreal tall tale of bravery and patriotism. It’s dense and ambitious, and its director’s steady hand leads to some unexpectedly emotional moments. Argo is being positioned as a big awards play come the end of the year, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a old-fashioned, winning film that’s greater than the sum of all its parts.

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