(L-R) Scoot McNairy, Clea DuVall, Ben Affleck, Christopher Denham, Rory Cochrane, Kerry Bishé and Tate Donovan in "Argo"
In 2010, when I reviewed Ben Affleck's sophomore directorial effort, "The Town," I wrote: "Ben Affleck is all grown up." Affleck doubles down on that statement with his third -- and best -- directorial undertaking, "Argo."
The Ben Affleck audiences discovered in the mid-1990s and early 2000s seemed to have the depth of a speed bump. He stumbled through cinematic missteps ("Forces of Nature") and laughable stinkers ("Gigli," "Reindeer Games"), with only the occasional gem. Now, the Affleck of old has been shed like an unwanted husk, and what remains is a sharp and thoughtful filmmaker who is still in the embryonic phase of a very impressive career. Sure, Affleck the actor is also along for the ride (and he fares well in "Argo"), but his skill behind the camera is what truly shines.
The harrowing true story is more compelling than anything Hollywood could dream up. The film's creative opening sheds some light on the strained political dynamic between Iran and the United States, leading up to an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. Fifty-two Americans are taken hostage as Iranian revolutionaries storm the embassy, but six Americans manage to escape amidst the turmoil and hide out in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).
Back in the U.S., CIA operative Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) tasks "exfiltration specialist" Tony Mendez (Affleck) with hatching a plan to get the six Americans safely out of Iran before their true identities and whereabouts are discovered. And what a plan it is. Mendez conceives of a faux movie production that would make the six part of his filmmaking team. Their excuse for being in Iran is location-scouting, naturally, as pre-production gets underway on "Argo," a Star Wars-esque fantasy film featuring exotic locales. Mendez even turns to Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and aging director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to make the "production" as authentic as possible. Should Mendez's ruse get discovered, it is more than likely that he and his six fellow Americans will all be killed (or worse -- tortured and killed).
"Argo" is a nail-biter from beginning to end, and easily one of the year's best films. The production values -- costuming, set design, cinematography and score -- are impressive throughout. Affleck and his crew do a phenomenal job capturing the time period and casting actors who both look like their real-life counterparts and have the thespian chops to hit all the right emotional notes (notable performances come from Arkin, Cranston and up-and-comer Scoot McNairy).
Affleck should be in line for an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, though it is still too early to say if he deserves to win. The strong screenplay includes great dialogue for the likes of Arkin and Cranston, but some "close call" moments leading up to and during the film's tense climax feel contrived. One of the film's many strengths is its ability to draw in the audience -- we often feel we are there with these people throughout the ordeal, for better or worse.
A goofy sci-fi film dubbed "Argo" never got made in 1980. Fortunately for moviegoers, a brilliant, Oscar-worthy drama/thriller of the same name did get made in 2012.
Rated R for language and some violent images. 2 hours.
- Tyler Hanley