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Movie Review: Ben Affleck's Academy Award-Winning ARGO Turns Reality into Thrilling Cinema



Let me make something clear right off the bat: I love Argo.  I think it’s a tense, exciting, and surprisingly funny thriller, the kind of adult entertainment that Hollywood really doesn’t make anymore.  By “adult,” I’m not talking about sex and/or violence; those are two elements that the studios never really tire of shoveling at viewers.  See, Argo is smart.  It requires more of its audience than an affinity for R-rated content, and though it’s never less than entertaining, it generates its thrills from intelligence rather than from tired clichés (more on this later).  It won three Academy Awards last night – Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture, which means that director/producer/star Ben Affleck now has one more Oscar than his Good Will Hunting bestie Matt Damon –  and to that, I say congrats!  You wowed ’em all, kid.

But it isn’t the Best Picture of the Year.  It’s a very good picture, and let us not underrate “very good.”  The Bourne series is very good.  Three Days of the Condor is very good.  Inside Man is very good.  “Very good” gets more replay value in my house because it tends to go down easier than the very bad or the truly excellent.  You heard it here first: within five years, Argo will become a perennial television staple, the kind of movie you catch on TNT or USA when you’re channel-surfing, and it ends up sucking you in, right on through to the end.

In its broad strokes, it’s a docudrama.  Director Ben Affleck takes viewers back to 1979, when an Iranian mob stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran as retaliation against the U.S.’ support of the deposed Shah.  Most of those working at the embassy found themselves held hostage and thrust into the global consciousness, but six staff members (Kerry Bishé, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, and Scoot McNairy, unrecognizable from his other vivid 2012 turns in Promised Land and Killing Them Softly) escaped before the breach occurred, seeking refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran (Victor Garber).  In conjunction with the Canadian government, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck, whose low-key, punchy performance is serviceable but not on par with the rest of his cast) orchestrated a dangerous plan to liberate the six refugees, the details of which were only recently declassified.

For its historical import alone, Argo merits your attention, but Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio present this material in an unexpected and wholly delightful fashion, staging Mendez’s gamble as a grand con that pivots on improvisation and split-second twists of fate.  Mendez doesn’t parachute into Tehran, guns blazing.  Rather, he assumes the identity of a Hollywood producer on a location scout, with the six embassy workers all reluctant members of his filming crew.

The levels of planning involved are comprehensive, to say the least – along with movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and Planet of the Apes makeup expert John Chambers (the great John Goodman), Mendez generates a real script, special effects tests, production art, and all the junket sessions and pitch meetings that accompany a movie’s development – and they work to give Argo the pace and verve of a classic caper.  Argo is less Syriana than it is The Sting: Nights in Tehran; the difference is, most of the implausible details are true.

Here’s the catch: Argo’s fun factor comes at the expense of its potential greatness.  The film is so slick and engaging that it never rises above the level of an entertainment.  With the exception of Affleck, all of the actors are good, but not great, but again, “not great” isn’t an insult.  Everyone (and that also includes Kyle Chandler, Bryan Cranston, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, Željko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Chris Messina, Michael Parks, and Titus Welliver) does exactly what’s expected of them and nothing more; Terrio’s script conveys everything pertinent without unnecessary – or exceptional – writerly flourishes; and William Goldenberg’s editing and Rodrigo Prieto’s camerawork embody yeoman craft.  If anything is exceptional, it’s Affleck’s direction.  After Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Argo represents his most polished and confident work behind the camera yet, and he makes this confection seem more effortless than it might otherwise be.  When we enter the third act’s big escape, the film slips into standard near-misses and close-calls that aren’t terribly unique – and aren’t factually accurate – and it’s a testament to Affleck’s direction that we swallow these gimmicks without much resistance.

Now, one could argue that it’s more challenging to make an entertaining movie than an ambitious one; Steven Soderbergh said that he faced his biggest directorial challenges making the Ocean’s Eleven movies, and I’m loath to question a filmmaker as accomplished as Soderbergh.  Yet of 2012’s best films, I’d call Django Unchained more provocative, Lincoln more eloquent, Zero Dark Thirty more exciting, The Master more challenging, and Cloud Atlas more aesthetically virtuosic, and all of these films are at least as entertaining as Argo.  Argo just lacks that added spice, that resonance that the all-time greats have.

By comparison, it’s just very good.  Don’t forget, though: very good ain’t so bad.

Argo only came out last October, so it’s no surprise that the Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack looks great.  Prieto’s gritty, burnished cinematography is sharp and detailed, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is very immersive.

Special features are abundant.  The disc’s three best features are a commentary with Affleck and Terrio, the PiP “Eyewitness Account” feature that plays alongside the movie, and the forty-five minute “Escape from Iran: The Hollywood Option” documentary released just after the CIA mission was declassified.  Rounding off the disc are three decent behind-the-scenes featurettes, “Rescued from Tehran: We Were There,” “Absolute Authenticity,” and “The CIA and Hollywood Connection,” which are well produced but repeat some of the information found elsewhere.

Still, it’s a generous, interesting supplements package for one of the year’s most entertaining flicks.

Argo is available on Blu-ray combo pack, DVD, and digital download.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.