"Argo" Dazzles With Impeccable Visuals And Stirring Finale

“Argo” is a masterstroke of technical filmmaking, and it’s the final, uncontestable piece of evidence needed to anoint Ben Affleck as one of the top directors of his generation. His rollercoaster of a career (from Oscar gold to a much maligned series of films to tabloid backlash and, perhaps, all the way back again) has fashioned an astonishingly wise and adept filmmaker. 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone” was excellent and 2010’s “The Town” was rock-solid. “Argo” is something entirely different, and removed from his Bostonian comfort zone, Affleck’s directorial grip is tighter than ever. The script’s tonal issues (likely inherent in the material) leave but a small dent in as fluid and gripping a film you’ll see all year.

The picture opens with a history lesson, filling us in on the events that led to the Iranian revolution of 1979. Instead of relying on the boilerplate method of stock footage accompanied by a disembodied narrator, Affleck uses one of the film’s characters to narrate the piece, and, brilliantly, storyboards the relevant historic events. It lets the audience know up front that this isn’t your typically dry “based on actual events” exercise. The “CIA meets Hollywood meets the Middle East” bent is established immediately, and the film is better for it. Soon, we’re thrown into the middle of the US Embassy as it’s overrun by angry Iranian protestors.

Fifty-two Americans are taken hostage, but six manage to escape, finding refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador. Months pass and the CIA becomes more worried about the six than the fifty-two – if found in hiding, they’re likely to be publically executed. A CIA supervisor (Bryan Cranston) holds a brainstorming session and an under-the-radar “exfiltration” agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) speaks up. He’s critical of the other’s ideas, but has none of his own. In a subsequent meeting, he proposes the idea of heading an imaginary film crew location scouting in Iran – arriving with one and departing with seven. Amazingly, it’s deemed the “best bad idea” they have.

While Affleck-the-director has likely bypassed Affleck-the-actor in terms of skill, he astutely plays the lead character as the antithesis of the suave, charismatic, swashbuckling CIA agent that we’ve seen again and again. In fact, he portrays Mendez as something of a wet blanket. He’s separated from his wife, misses his son, has zero social life, and is essentially married to his job. It’s the relationship with his son that furthers the film’s connection to the movies. They chat on the phone as they jointly watch “Battle For The Planet Of The Apes” and the boy’s late-70s toy collection represents this common interest between the two. Affleck noted in a post-film question and answer session that he was that exact age in 1979 and was unsure if he related more to the father or the son.

Credit goes to both Affleck and writer Chris Terrio (in addition to historical events, the screenplay was based on an article from “Wired” magazine by Joshuah Bearman) for applying such a delicate touch to the film. The Hollywood angle doesn’t always mesh with the more weighty portions of the film, but when it does, it says something profound about how important movies are to us and how we use them to cope, mourn, celebrate, and blur the lines between fantasy and reality.

Mendez and company decide to make their fake film as real as possible, and they enlist a high-profile special effects designer, John Chambers (John Goodman) and a big-wig producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help with the project. The trio stages table-reads, make-up tests, and even sets up a production office to give the film, “Argo,” some bonafide press coverage. Goodman and Arkin are given lots of jokey material – some of which works, some of which doesn’t – and it never quite coalesces with the story’s real-world implications. Yet, their one-liners are there to alleviate some of the tension that comes to head in the third act. And, wow – does it ever.

The six American refugees are played by Kerry Bishé, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, and Scoot McNairy. Each one is given enough backstory that we can tell them apart, but one in particular is given center stage several times over the course of the film, to fantastic results. Joe Stafford (McNairy) is the dissenter of the group, repeatedly doubting Mendez and his plan, and the little-known McNairy is wonderful in the role. In many ways, the character speaks for the audience when he questions the absurdity of the plan. Nobody wants to hear it, but he succinctly wonders aloud if they’re going to die – a very real possibility.

Period pieces are notoriously hard to pull off (often to the tune of inflated budgets), but Affleck and his crew have gone to extraordinary lengths to recreate this world, including specific visual moments that actually occurred. These side-by-side comparisons are made evident during the end credits, and while a post-film slideshow could have come off as smug or self-satisfied, the comparisons are so eerily accurate that you can only smile. There are moments in the film during which I wasn’t sure if I was seeing archival footage or new material. It’s seamless. Tonal issues aside, “Argo” is a technical marvel. It deserves its own full-length making-of feature, but only if the world is ready for a movie about the making of a movie about making a movie.

The final third of the film is breathless in its pacing and excruciating in its level of suspense. The aim of a good thriller was never clear to me until now – it should make you aware of your own heartbeat. While not an action film per se, “Argo” practically shakes your seat. It commands your attention. It trades the self-important barking of most CIA-thrillers for quietly effective moments and gives up predictable action setpieces in favor of striking period piece intricacies. It’s so sleek and well-made that you’ll wish you could park it in your driveway and show it off to your neighbors. Congratulations, Mr. Affleck. You’ve arrived. Again. Please stay awhile.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: October 12, 2012
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Ben Affleck
Screenwriter: Chris Terrio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Victor Garber, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Scoot McNairy, Chris Messina, Michael Parks, Taylor Schilling
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some violent images)