****1/2 (out of 5)
October 12, 2012
Ben Affleck as TONY MENDEZ
Bryan Cranston as JACK O’DONNELL
Alan Arkin as LESTER SEIGEL
John Goodman as JOHN CHAMBERS
Victor Garber as KEN TAYLOR
Directed by: Ben Affleck
BY KEVIN CARR
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Fifteen years ago, I could not have been convinced that Ben Affleck, then known as “the other guy from ‘Good Will Hunting,’” would have been a serious awards contender in any category. But after a decade and a half of some acting misfires, he’s become one of Hollywood’s new triple threats.
Over the past five years, Affleck has proved himself not just a competent director, but a really solid one. After a strong debut with “Gone Baby Gone” in 2007 and an even stronger follow-up with “The Town” two years ago, he has made the best movie of his career… so far.
And he did this last one without anyone speaking in a thick Boston accent.
Affleck’s latest directorial effort is “Argo,” a tense political thriller that begins when the Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Dozens of Americans were taken hostage, but six managed to escape into the streets only to find themselves trapped in hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s home. Knowing the Iranians would soon discover they are short six hostages, Tony Mendez (Affleck) spearheads a plan with the CIA to extract the Americans. The plan is to pose as a Canadian film production scouting locations for a new film.
I lived through the Iranian hostage crisis, but I was less then 10 years old at the time, so I was far more interested in the upcoming “Star Wars” sequel than I was in international politics. However, I remember how heavily reported this situation was. It was a big deal back then, and considering the media frenzy and the tenuous international situation, this is truly an amazing story.
The movie actually opens with a brief history of Iran and its upheavals of the time, to set the framework. This is necessary to put the film in proper context, and it soon escalates into the attack on the U.S. Embassy. Though it was filmed many months ago, these opening minutes of “Argo” are particularly impactful because of the current political climate, regarding relations with the Muslim world.
Framed against the backdrop of the recent fatal attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya, “Argo” is extremely relevant. This isn’t the case to stir up further anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. Trust me, we have more than enough of that to go around. The deeper meaning in “Argo” shows the real possibility of diplomatic and covert solutions instead of a rush to overt war. It’s an unsettling situation to watch in cinematic form, but it reminds us of the tightrope that needs to be walked in a world that grows smaller by the second with conflicts that grow more politicized even faster.
But aside from the political ramifications of “Argo,” it works as an international thriller quite well. In fact, it works better as an international thriller than other fabricated films like “The Bourne Legacy” earlier this year and “The International” from several years ago.
With the “Based on a True Story” moniker splattered all over this movie, it’s obviously going to take some artistic license. However, a lot of this seems to be done to make things work out in a chronological manner rather than a dramatic one. Affleck tightens things up, almost a little too much in the Hollywood style, in the third act, but that doesn’t stop it from being a tense thrill to watch.
However, amid the sometimes dour and often tense times in the lives of the trapped Americans, Affleck manages to deliver some bitingly hilarious moments. Like Clint Eastwood used to be able to do with his films, like “Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino,” the comic relief in the movie is laugh-out-loud funny. A lot of this comic relief comes as Affleck pokes fun at his own industry but not in an overly self-referential manner.
It’s this balance between tense situations on the ground and the ludicrous (and sadly true) nature of making a movie, real or fake, that Affleck works his pacing. The tension is relieved just at the right moments, priming and re-priming the audience for the eventual payoff.
“Argo” is a feat for Ben Affleck as a director, and this third time as a charm proves he’s one of the most promising directors working today.