Review: Argo (2012)

With Argo, his third feature as director, Ben Affleck has cemented himself as the best actor-turned-director in Hollywood. That’s no easy feat as Hollywood loves actors-turned-directors and is teeming with some very confident ones like George Clooney and Sean Penn. But unlike Clooney and Penn who will always be considered actors first and directors second, Affleck has proven that direction is his true calling.

Argo is a preposterous story that is so crazy it has to be true. In 1979, right after the Iranian revolution the States gave asylum to the deposed Shah, and in response fundamentalist revolutionaries stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took the embassy workers hostage. However, six embassy workers escaped through a back door and took refuge at the Canadian Ambassador’s house.

Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA exfiltration specialist who was tasked with getting the six American embassy workers out of Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis. With the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), he sets up a fake Hollywood production company with the intent of flying the embassy workers out of Tehran posed as the film production crew for a sci-fi movie named Argo.

The scenes in Hollywood are the film’s humorous detours, and allow for some entertaining commentary on the movie industry. Goodman and Arkin don’t have a ton of screen time, but they make the most of it and inject a lot of humour into a film the subject of which doesn’t seem to have comedic potential.

Bryan Cranston is also very good as Mendez’s CIA chief, and Scoot McNairy stands out as one of the six embassy workers. Affleck has taken a bit of flak for his low-key performance at the centre of the film, but I think his choice to underplay Mendez highlight’s Affleck’s lack of vanity. He gave himself the starring role, but he allows everyone who surrounds him to shine.

Argo is a film of impeccable craft and from the opening scene of the film this craft is on full display. After a short opening prologue that explains the Iranian revolution through storyboards, we cut straight to the besieged American embassy in Tehran. The revolutionaries are outside, raging and pushing hard against the gates. The embassy workers inside try to go about their business, but it’s impossible because the situation outside is about to explode. Once the revolutionaries break open the gate, the workers start to panic, shredding files and evacuating the Iranians who were seeking asylum, knowing full well that if they’re caught, they’ll be tortured and killed.

There’s very little music in this scene to guide our emotions and tell us what to think. Affleck lets the facts speak for themselves, the overwhelming situation at the embassy tense enough to stand on its own without embellishment. Last month at a school lecture film critic Geoff Pevere said that the opening five minutes of a great film should tell you everything you need to know about it. That is definitely the case with Argo as the opening scene lays out how confident and tense a film this is. It’s suspenseful and realistic, and completely lacking the flash that most filmmakers use to rattle the audience.

There are no car chases or gunfights in this film. The hostages never have to race through the city to escape their possible captors and Affleck never has to use a gun to rescue them. And yet the tension is there. The climax of the film is almost unbearably tense, even though we all know the story’s outcome.

Some people are a little perplexed why a film as quiet and straightforward as Argo is making such traction with audiences and critics alike. I think the reason is the film respects the audience’s intelligence. Affleck has confidence in his story and knows that the audience will become involved in the film if he merely lays out the story in a skillful way. He doesn’t have to manipulate you into becoming engrossed. The story does that.

And Argo is definitely one of the most engrossing movies I’ve seen in a while. The audience I saw it with was comprised mostly of 60 year olds and they were completely enthralled by it. They were even cheering and clapping by the film’s climax.

Argo is a classic Hollywood thriller done right. Its topic is timely and its execution is excellent. Affleck is a real deal director, and Hollywood has finally noticed.

Argo (2012)

Directed by Ben Affleck; written by Chris Terrio based off an article by Joshuah Bearman; starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, and Kyle Chandler.

9 out of 10