Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Ben Affleck’s Argo is the kind of feel-good Oscar bait one can actually feel good about winning a few awards. Impeccably acted and directed, the film earns its heroics without Hollywoodizing the fact-based story too much. Thrilling but with a measured sense of humor, it’s a major accomplishment for Affleck as a filmmaker and proof that quality work can occasionally occur within the studio system.
The film opens with an effective Iranian history lesson told via storyboards, informing the mindset of an especially angry mob protesting outside of the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979. The subsequent storming of the building is a tense, fluid marvel of a set piece and recalls the equally stunning Olympic Village siege in Munich. Shot from a plentitude of angles both inside and out, the palatable terror of the attack places one firmly in the shoes of those within while maintaining action-film pace. The threat is startlingly real, and though six U.S. foreign service employees escape and hole up at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), what awaits them if discovered is unmistakable thanks to seeing it up close.
Capitalizing on such a strong first act, Argo keeps the energy high as the U.S. government figures out how to get the six citizens back home. With the world watching President Carter as the Embassy hostage drags on, the CIA thinks of plausible covers for the subgroup, all of which have their risks. Inspired by watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes, CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) whips up a plan to have the citizens pose as a Canadian film crew, in Iran to scout locations for a sci-fi movie.
Enlisting Hollywood make-up wizard John Chambers (John Goodman), who’s helped him with disguises on past missions, the two convince producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, at his snarky best) to finance the fake project. Under a ticking clock to finalize his plan before the government goes with a less appealing option, Mendez and his team choose a Star Wars knock-off called Argo. A subsequent media-friendly read-through of the film’s script gives it legitimacy in Hollywood, and with the believable ruse in place, Washington signs on as well.
As both sides lay groundwork and the six citizens feel increasingly at risk, Affleck maintains a convincing ‘70s vibe. The production design and costuming are naturally superb, but the camerawork by Rodrigo Prieta (25th Hour, Brokeback Mountain) is the real star. Given just the right graininess to feel era-appropriate, the photography pays homage to the greats of its time in subtle yet effective ways. While Mendez’s boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) rushes around Washington to ensure the plan’s success, the camera effortlessly whips around CIA and other federal offices like the heir to All the President’s Men. Slightly more obvious, though no less thrilling, is the just-so pan and zoom and exaggerated lens tint as Mendez and Chambers pull up to Siegel’s house, a direct nod to Shaft and its Blaxploitation brethren. Little touches like these further highlight Affleck’s exceptional attention to detail and solidifies the film as a well-oiled, thoroughly planned project.
A likewise key component of Argo’s success is Chris Terrio’s script, which moves the layered action along at an impressive clip. Characters say just what they need to say and nothing more, though with such significant and welcome pithiness, the dialogue is almost too good. Powerful words are a cornerstone of the best films, but these situations lend themselves to both grandstanding and catchphrases, and Terrio can’t help but milk them for all their dramatic worth. The same goes for the extraction itself, which has about three too many close calls. One buzzer beater is sufficient, but when phone after phone is answered at the absolute last ring, the excess of tension produces an opposite effect.
Despite these minor generic flaws, Argo is too well-crafted to fall apart and delivers on all its promises. Affleck pulls off a remarkable balancing act, producing consistent thrills without once discounting the servicemen’s experience, and emerges as a director with seemingly far more than three films on his resumé. For his efforts, he may very well be thanking the Academy in late February. No objection here.
Rated R for language and some violent images.
Argo is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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