ARGO – The Review
So, it turns out that what is perhaps this year’s most riveting espionage thriller did not originate from the pen or typewriter of Robert Ludlum John leCarre’ , or…Ian Fleming. ARGO is based on a real undercover operation that was finally declassified by President Clinton in 1997. And the man in the director’s chair is almost as surprising as the mission itself. I’m speaking of actor Ben Affleck ( who also stars ). What an interesting career! After toiling away as a child actor he became part of Kevin Smith’s repertory company with a role in MALLRATS and the lead in CHASING AMY. Then came Oscar for the screenplay he co-wrote with Matt Damon for 1997′s GOOD WILL HUNTING ( he played Matt’s best buddy in the flick ). This propelled him into the big leagues and he seemed to have a movie at the multiplex every couple of weeks. He balanced light “rom-coms” with big action epics ( even playing a Marvel superhero in 2003′s DAREDEVIL ). Ben also became a target of the tabloids ( remember ” Bennifer” ? ) and was on the verge of being a late night TV comedy punchline. Fortunately he changed course, was more selective, and took on a few offbeat roles ( like his excellent supporting turn as tragic TV iconic hero George Reeves in HOLLYWOODLAND ). And he went behind the camera to direct the Boston-based thrillers GONE BABY GONE in 2007 and THE TOWN in 2010 ( this time in the lead role ). Now with ARGO, Affleck has gone past his home town and tackled a real-life globe spanning story and proves that his superb previous works were not flukes.
To get us in the proper mood, we’re treated to the return of the simple white bar on black graphic Warner Brothers logo of the 1970′s and early 80′s. Then it’s time for a quick primer on the history of Iran using film story board art, focusing on the 20th century. Quickly we’re dropped right into that fateful day in 1979 when an angry mob stormed the United States embassy compound in Iran. But before the armed group burst through the front door, six Americans dashed out the back door and out into the street. In the states we learn that this group was taken in by the Canadian ambassador and are now ” guests ” at his living quarters. Things continue to heat up and Canada demands they leave this safe haven. The state department calls on the CIA’s Jack O’Donnell ( Bryan Cranston ) who brings in extraction expert Tony Mendez ( Affleck ). After hearing some of the odd ideas proposed, Mendez is determined to come up with a plan that can get the six out of Iran. Watching TV with his son that night, a light bulb goes on over his head. He’ll pose as a film producer, fly there to ” scout locations” and fly out with six members of his production team. But he doesn’t know film ! Luckily the agency has a friend in Hollywood : make-up whiz ( an Oscar winner for the original PLANET OF THE APES and designer of a mobile disguise kit for undercover work ) John Chambers ( John Goodman ). He, in turn, enlists the help of veteran movie producer Lester Siegel ( Alan Arkin ) and they find an available script for a space opera titled ” Argo “. After planting the seeds using Hollywood hoopla and hype ( the trade paper poster art is below ), the mission is approved. Mendez flies out to meet the ” guests of Canada “. Can he train this group to pass for film makers ? The clock is ticking away. If he fails, as O’Donnell puts it ” They die…badly”.
The first-rate performances really bring this true tale of derring-do to life, anchored by director Affleck’s understated work as masterspy Mendez. Like many screen heroes dating back to Gary Cooper, he’s stoic when necessary, saving his energy for the moment demanding action…or very quick thinking. We can see the weariness in his eyes from too many late nights away from loved ones and too many brushes with death. This undercover working stiff is a true unsung hero. No fame or glory, just satisfaction when the mission is complete. Affleck and Cranston work well together in their scenes back at Langley. The indulge in some good-natured ribbing while having complete respect in each other. O’Donnell will stand up to the pencil pushers so Mendez can get the job done. The real scene stealers are back in ” Tinsle Town “. Goodman as the make-up magician has seen nearly everything and has a cool laid-back cynicism explaining the mechanics of the movie biz to Affleck. Arkin matches Goodman perfectly as the film vet who has seen everything and knows how to speak the language of the ” deal “. Most of the young studio turks have written him off, but Arkin dives back in motivated perhaps by a renewed sense of patriotism ( he views the grim newsfootage on the TV in his mansion ). In the hollywood section of ARGO Affleck almost becomes a straight man to this terrific comedy team. Luckily the rescue scenes are so riveting that we don’t miss them too much. Affleck also peppers the film with wonderful character actors like Phillip Baker Hall, Titus Welliver, and Zeljko Ivanek back in DC and includes Clea DuVall and Rory Cochrane as part of the ” six guests “. Superb work from all the actors involved here.
Working from a lean, taut screenplay by Chris Terrio, Affleck really puts us in that tense time period. Aside from the campy fashions and hairstyles ( big mustaches and sideburns ) , all the background TVs provide a constant stream of info using real news clips ( there’s ” Uncle ” Walter Cronkite, and Frank Reynolds, and… ), some that foreshadow current events. Affleck goes to a brighter, more colorful style for the mid section set in LA as they set up the phony flick. Speaking of which the phoniness of the film biz ( and the folks that run the town ) almost oozes off the screen. In one scene an agent insults Siegel to his face , but each man retains their frozen smiles. I only wish we could see a bit more of Michael Parks as the fake film’s artist, Jack ” King ” Kirby ( the real life Marvel Comics master ). But then Affeck plunges us back in the danger zone. Here Iran is a land of random violence. A wrong look or word can mean the end. Affleck uses subtitles sparingly in order to heighten the disorientation. A tour of the marketplace becomes a nightmare of claustrophobic terror, as glaring wild eyes and snarling bearded faces envelop them. Affleck even cranks up the tension in the ” safe ” house. One of the six just doesn’t trust Mendez. Will he be their weak link? ARGO is a remarkable achievement. Ben Affleck can now join the ranks of actors like Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, actor who are exceptional film makers. This is an expertly produced thrill ride that grabs you by the throat in its opening minutes and doesn’t let up til the final fade-out ( oh, be sure and stick around for some great photos during the end credits ). I’m sure it will be well represented during the upcoming awards season. To paraphrase a joke exchanged during the film, ” ARGO…see this film! ”
5 Out of 5 Stars