FILM REVIEW

Afflecks's 'Argo' a riveting ride

Film has sturdy direction, compelling cast


This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, center, in "Argo," a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. (AP Photo/Warner Bros., Claire Folger)

Published: Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 7:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 7:35 p.m.

Not having read the article that formed the basis of the script for "Argo," it's impossible to say how close this "based on a true story" thriller actually resembles the real-life events. That, however, ultimately proves irrelevant, as "Argo" is a riveting ride from beginning to end. With its airtight script, sturdy direction and compelling cast of characters, this movie is a no-brainer for anyone in search of smart, slick entertainment.

Facts

"ARGO"

Rated: R
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
4 stars

"Argo" begins on Nov. 4, 1979, in Tehran, Iran. As history buffs are no doubt aware, this was the day when an angry mob of Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy, ultimately taking 52 Americans hostage. The opening scenes of this movie set the tone early for what's to come; angry mobs of Iranians burn American flags, shout anti-U.S. slogans and carry weapons with menacing intent. (In fact, in light of the recent attacks in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East, it's somewhat remarkable Warner Bros. didn't attempt to excise some of this material.)

As the crowd storms the Embassy grounds, a group of six consular workers elect to flee while they still can and end up finding their way to the home of the Canadian ambassador. In short order the CIA is given the unpleasant assignment of getting the trapped Americans out of Tehran safely. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), an "exfiltration expert" tasked by his boss, Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), with finding a suitable plan. What Mendez comes up with is something so ludicrous on its face that it's a small miracle it was even approved: Use the cover of a fake location scout for a fake sci-fi movie to bring the Americans out as part of the (again, fake) film crew. This is a plan that's a step beyond "so crazy it just might work."

The rest of the narrative follows Mendez's efforts to make the fake movie convincing enough to pass muster, and then his trip to Iran to try to get the hostages out. It's a masterful effort from Affleck as a director; he expertly uses archival footage to enhance the verisimilitude of the production, and the period detail is exceptional, from the costumes and set design on down to the soundtrack and the grainy nature of how the movie was shot.

"Argo" is also a textbook example of the value of good editing. As Mendez works to shore up the credentials of his fake movie, frequent cuts back to Tehran keep the stakes of his mission firmly grounded in the audience's mind. On the flip side, the scenes in Hollywood allow for some low-key humor and movie-industry bashing to give the audience a break from the pressure, as Mendez works with a foulmouthed makeup artist (John Goodman) and an even more foulmouthed producer (Alan Arkin) to sell the fake movie as a legitimate production.

As a director, Affleck has now proven himself to be more than merely capable. With "Gone Baby Gone" in 2007, "The Town" in 2010 and now "Argo," he's established his bona fides as a director equally adept at handling an action or chase scene as he is at handling quieter character moments.

It's somewhat unfortunate, then, that Affleck is also the biggest weakness in "Argo." With his long, shaggy hair and beard, it's clear Affleck is trying to avoid coming off as a big star at the center of his own movie, but unfortunately his performance as Mendez is rather hollow. We never really get a sense of what drives Mendez to keep going on this suicide mission, even as his co-workers and the people he's trying to rescue doubt he can pull it off. We invest in Mendez's mission, but not in Mendez himself.

It doesn't help Affleck's case that he's literally surrounded by a bevy of great performances. As O'Donnell, Cranston takes what could've been a thankless "boss" role and turns it into an entertaining mix of professionalism, anger and world-weariness. Similarly, Goodman and Arkin are clearly having a ball playing seemingly jaded movie veterans with noble souls; watching them hustle to push their fake movie is a blast. The most crucial performances, however, belong to the six relative unknowns who play the trapped Americans. Give credit where credit is due: All six actors turn in finely tuned performances, making each character unique and well-rounded.

His slight acting misstep aside, this is another solid entry on Affleck's resume. Let's hope we can continue to see good work like this from him in the future.

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