Title: Argo
Year: 2012
Genre: Biography, Drama, Thriller
Play time: 2h
Director: Ben Affleck
Screenwriters:Chris Terrio, Tony Mendez
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman

Screened at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival.

Argo is an accomplished and hugely enjoyable film, but for a while it threatens to become something radical. For about an hour, director Ben Affleck — building a serious reputation following the critical success of Gone Baby Gone and The Town — plays a fascinating game that appears to turn a wickedly critical eye on America’s exploits in the Middle East. Cornered by the demands of his spy-movie narrative, he ultimately backs off in favor of an intense crowd-pleaser of a last act, leaving us with an intelligent, expertly-made thriller that has glimmers of the extraordinary.

The film dramatizes the rescue of six Foreign Service workers who slip out of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran just prior to the capture of the rest of its staff by Islamist militants in 1979. It begins with voiceover providing newsreel-style background on the hostage crisis — emphasizing the role of the American-installed shah whose extradition the hostage-takers were demanding — then moves to a sober depiction of the invasion and take-over of the embassy by an outraged horde. Affleck shoots this tense sequence with the attention to detail and sense of place for which he’s rapidly becoming known. The angry demonstration outside the embassy gates is terrifyingly plausible and immediate, our view of it often obscured by waving flags, pumping arms, and shaking protest signs. Inside the building, Affleck lingers on the eyes of the trapped visitors and staff, frightened and on the verge of panic.

Then something weird happens: Argo becomes a jaunty caper flick. The six escapees hole up at the house of the Canadian ambassador, unable to leave. The CIA, led by expert extractor Tony Mendez (Affleck, bearded and morose), comes up with a plan to get them out of the country: manufacture a cover as a film crew scouting locations for a movie. Mendez recruits a friendly make-up artist (John Goodman) and a fading producer (Alan Arkin), and the trio proceed to drum up buzz surrounding the impending production of their fake film, an Edgar Rice Burroughs-style sci-fi epic called “Argo.” They roll around Hollywood in a gold Cadillac to the sounds of “Sultans of Swing,” and the film suddenly turns into something more State and Main than Body of Lies.

At first I found this bewildering, but then it struck me: the tone of American involvement in the Middle East has long — to the Americans — had the feel of a blithe, lighthearted caper. The opening voiceover took pains to emphasize the heedless nature of American maneuvering in the region. Bifurcating the film into a deadly-serious Iranian-set thriller and a devil-may-care American romp is therefore a brilliant move, forcing a different perspective on what might otherwise have just been the tale of a heroic rescue. The gambit culminates in an astonishing sequence that juxtaposes a garish script reading in LA (complete with a blinking “Lost in Space”-type robot) and dire footage of anti-American militants in Iran.

Argo largely drops this line in the last hour, favoring a more typical race-against-time climax. I must say that it’s sensationally well-done — a fanciful version of true events with a thrilling real-time feel and moments of breathless, nail-chewing suspense. And Affleck doesn’t totally abandon the themes he was juggling: the ultimate impetus for executing the near-suicide mission is Mendez deciding to take responsibility when his country won’t do so. But the ending offers far more standard-issue patriotism than is warranted, and I mourned the gutsy formal experiment that Affleck started to cook up.

Minor flaws and disappointments aside, it’s worth pausing to consider Affleck’s transformation from ridiculed actor to respected auteur. Argo is a tremendously skillful film, balancing multiple disparate and complex threads, showing off a tremendous ensemble cast (which also includes Bryan Cranston as Affleck’s boss and Kyle Chandler as the White House Chief of Staff), providing ample conventional thrills, and doing it all with a measure of nuance and thematic depth. (I was particularly impressed with the handling of Affleck’s character, whose troubled past is invoked via an accumulation of circumstantial and performance details rather than some mawkish backstory about a botched mission that haunts him.) This is an ambitious step in a promising career.

Eugene Novikov

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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