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Review: Argo (2012)

Argo

Rating

Director
Ben Affleck
Screenplay
Chris Terrio (Based on an article by Joshuah Bearman)
Length
120 min.
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, Titus Welliver, Keith Szarabajka, Bob Gunton, Richard Kind, Page Leong, Sheila Vand
MPAA Rating
R for language and some violent images

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Review
Watching a new directorial voice emerge is one of the most thrilling aspects of being a film critic. Seeing how they develop into strong storytellers and craftsmen emboldens us. With Argo, Ben Affleck has not only solidified his position as one of the finest talents working today, he assures us that he's no two-trick pony.

Five years ago, Affleck made his directorial debut with the investigative drama Gone Baby Gone. It was a fine piece of entertainment, but one that could have been crafted by any number of other hard-working genre filmmakers. He followed that up with the thrilling cop drama The Town. It was clear then that he had a keen eye for action and an ability to draw strong performances out of his cast without drawing attention to the act. While the prior to films were similar tonally, Argo draws lightly from those sources and becomes one of the most idealistic, creative and capable period thrillers in decades.

The story surrounds the real life Iran Hostage Crisis that tainted the Jimmy Carter administration as dozens of Americans were held captive in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The lesser known story of the era is that of six embassy workers who escaped the building as the revolutionaries broke down the front door. Seeking refuge in the Canadian ambassadors home, word reached the U.S. and the CIA began developing ideas for how to extricate those six individuals. The idea was far-fetched, but ultimately approved: Tony Mendez (Affleck) would put together a fake Hollywood production and send in a team of "location scouts" who would then leave the country through the airport.

Starting things out modestly with a brief history lesson for those who may not have been familiar with the events that led to the hostage crisis in the first place, Affleck set the audience carefully and comfortably into the framework of a taut spy story that never overwhelms. Affleck's performance as Mendez isn't the stuff of legend, but it's admirable with all of the other work he must put into the film. Only Clint Eastwood better directed himself in Million Dollar Baby of the many actors-turned-director in recent decades.

Argo, the title of the faux film being used as a cover identity, is a compelling look at the heroic efforts one man went through to rescue six people whose lives would be forfeit were they to be caught. Assisting Mendez in setting up his cover identity are legendary Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who won an Honorary Oscar for his work on Planet of the Apes and frequently assisted the CIA in various covert operations. Chambers brings on a noted Hollywood director, the fictionalized Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and they set up a cover studio identity, create press materials and other events to legitimize the film to hold up to muster once Mendez arrives in Tehran.

Many action movies love to create tension by using chaotic edits that blur the images and create a sense of motion and speed. Affleck chooses leave these methods behind and use tight, controlled editing in its place. Editor William Goldenberg could net his first Oscar for his work on Argo. His talented work keeps the audience gripped. The film reminds me a great deal of the slow, methodical editing at the start of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, another fine example of how to make tense, exciting sequences without a barrage of nonsensical cuts.

Alexandre Desplat's minimalist style is evocatively applied to the film, always dropping quietly into the background when not needed and dominating the picture only when required. Some of the most engaging action sequences only hear a slight strain of his score in the background and others find it completely absent. Desplat's talent in other projects fits perfectly into the film and is employed with impeccable precision by Affleck and his team.

Goodman and Arkin are strong actors and they bring a great deal of levity to the proceedings, yet they don't derail the picture when they are on the screen showing they know their place as supporting players. Also delivering strong support are Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador, and Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé and Rory Cochrane as the six hiding embassy workers. They create humanizing refugees, trapped in a dangerous situation, yet their strength and endurance are paramount to their mission's success. Chris Messina as a fellow CIA operative and Bryan Cranston who plays Affleck's immediate superior, are additionally satisfying in their limited roles.

Three good to great films is a talent, not a fluke. Hollywood's refusal to acknowledge The Town as one of the ten Best Pictures of its year speaks volumes about how little faith they had in Affleck as a talented director. You can't ignore a film like Argo. It's a cinematic feast, a tightly controlled, exciting, tense action drama that defines Affleck as a director Like Nicolas Winding Refn and Tomas Alfredson, there are few emerging directors today that have as fine an eye for action sequences and who refuse to bow down to the frenetic pace of populist entertainment when making their films. As Drive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Alfredson) and now Argo prove, you don't have to be a slave to fast-paced energy to create a taut, compelling drama.

Argo is easily one of the best American films in many years. It's a movie that would play well on repeat viewings and can appeal to audiences of all ages and genders. You are unlikely to find a finer, minimalist drama releasing the rest of this year, so enjoy it before the grandiosity of Oscar season tries to overwhelm you.
Oscar Prospects
Guarantees: Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Editing, Sound Mixing
Probables: Director, Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin)
Potentials: Actor (Ben Affleck), Supporting Actor (John Goodman), Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Sound Editing
Review Written
October 21, 2012

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