Sunday, October 14, 2012

Review: "Argo"

Director: Ben Affleck
Runtime: 120 minutes

At once a period-thriller, true story, and darkly funny commentary on Hollywood, Ben Affleck's Argo is a stupendously entertaining drama built on remarkable craftsmanship. The actor's third outing as a director finds him in the middle ground between his first two features. Round three finds Affleck balancing the grim realities of Gone Baby, Gone with the broader entertainment value of The Town. The result is a lively and thoroughly entertaining film that is never sunk by its basis in real events. True story or not, this is compelling movie making that has mainstream appeal without needing to dumb itself down.

Based on declassified events, Argo follows Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA extraction expert, as he tries to maneuver the rescue of six Americans during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Opening with a nail-biting depiction of the assault on the American embassy in Tehran, the film follows six workers who escape to the home of the Canadian ambassador. From there, the film weaves together Mendez's unique (and very risky) idea for a mission: set up a cover as a Canadian film crew to get in and out of increasingly hostile Iran. 

What Affleck and writer Chris Terrio accomplish is a constantly engaging work of storytelling, even when the outcome is never really in doubt. Argo is, of course, working from real events, yet the film is so immersive that it never feels hindered by its historical basis. Affleck and his technical collaborators are firing on all cylinders, and whether the film is being funny or serious, the momentum never flags from the opening scenes. Terrio also deserves credit for including an efficient and thorough background of the events leading up to the hostage crisis. Even though Mendez may be the "good guy," the film as a whole makes several jabs at the American involvement in the Middle East that led to the crisis.

The only department where Argo is lacking is character development. That's not to say that the characters are one note. They're all nicely drawn, even if they aren't afforded terrific amount of depth. Yet because the characters are completely governed by their circumstances, and not their own doing, there's virtually no room for people to grow or change. The closest the film comes to achieving this is Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) gradually overcoming his disdain for Mendez's plan. It's a knock down for the film, where all of the other elements congeal so well. Thankfully the performances all come through quite nicely, especially McNairy, Bryan Cranston (as a fellow CIA official), and Clea DuVall.

Yet even though the character development borders on non-existent, Terrio's script is still very well written and Affleck's direction carries off the tonal switches of the narrative seamlessly. Rather than succumb to the temptation to create an overly dour and bleak story, Argo introduces a fair amount of humor. Most of it comes via makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and big time producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), both of whom help create the fake background info for the film Mendez is using as his cover. As much as the film is about the grim circumstances of the Iran Hostage Crisis, it is also a very funny send up of the amount of fakery involved in Hollywood.

Despite the forgery and deception involved in the plot, Argo is a very real, and very good third feature from Affleck. The use of real events never feels cheap or exploitative, and allows the director room to craft an impeccable thriller with some excellent and visceral sequences that deliver a wonderful payoff. Argo is a first rate piece of mainstream filmmaking that solidifies Affleck as one of Hollywood's most exciting voices behind the camera.

Grade: B+

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