Directed by Ben Affleck
Produced by Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck and George Clooney
Written by Chris Terrio
Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman
Based on The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez and The Great Escape by Joshuah Bearman
Oscars: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin, nomination), Best Original Score (nomination), Best Sound Editing (nomination), Best Sound Mixing (nomination)
Runtime: 2 hr
Rated R for language and some violent images
Released: October 12, 2012
Reviewed: February 6, 2013
This it it. The apparent coup de grace of Ben Affleck’s directorial movies. Since it’s release, Argo has garnered near unanimous critical acclaim, seven Academy Award nominations, and so many other awards that many are beginning to question whether or not it has the momentum to beat Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln for the top prize of Best Picture at the Oscars in a couple weeks time. While I loved Argo, I’d still say Lincoln has near unbeatable odds of walking away away from the awards show top dog. In any case, here are my thoughts on Ben Affleck’s Argo.
Iran was a dangerous place in 1979. Granted, it’s not exactly the safest place in the world today, but it wasn’t back then, either. On November 4, Iranian militants stormed the U.S embassy in retaliation for the U.S sheltering their recently deposed shah. All but six of the workers are taken hostage by the government, and the six that escape find shelter in the home of the Canadian ambassador. In the U.S, the CIA is desperately trying to find a way to get the six escapees out of Iran in the most covert way possible. Unfortunately, to put it lightly, their ideas suck. Even Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad) are at a loss until Mendez, while on the phone with his son, has a crazy idea that just might work. He’ll fly into Iran under the guise of being a producer of an upcoming movie, get fake identities for the six Americans at the Canadian ambassadors house, and together they’ll fly out under the guise of an entire Canadian film crew that was in the country location scouting for exotic, alien landscapes. The idea gets the reluctant approval of the CIA, and Mendez flies to good ol’ Hollywood to meet up with John Chambers (John Goodman, The Big Lebowski), an Academy-Award winning makeup artist that has worked with the CIA before. To make their fake movie that much more realistic, they get a producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine) to help with the production. Then, after publicizing the movie, a sci-fi flick called Argo, Mendez flies to Iran, hoping all goes well.
I am once again at a loss of where to start with this movie. I guess that I’ll talk about the acting, since that really is one of the standout features of Argo. While each of the cast members puts in great performances, the standout is, without a doubt, Alan Arkin, who has been nominated for an Oscar for his role as Hollywood producer Lester Siegel. Not only does he steal every scene he’s in with doses of comedy, but Arkin’s performance is just phenomenal. I’m trying to think of any lines that really had me laughing and the one that stands out to me is when Mendez and Chambers are just telling Siegel about the plan, “Okay, so you got six people hiding out in a town of what, four million people, all of whom chant “death to America” all the livelong day. You want to set up a movie in a week. You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everyone lies for a living. Then, you’re gonna sneak 007 over here into a country that wants CIA blood on their breakfast cereal, and you’re gonna walk the Brady Bunch out of the most watched city in the world.” When Mendez confirms that, Siegel replies, “Right. Look, I gotta tell you, we did suicide missions in the army that had better odds than this.” Honest to God, every time I think about Arkin’s performance, I start to laugh because it was just that memorable of a performance.
Of course, just because there was comedy in Argo doesn’t make it any less of a thriller. From beginning to end, Argo is incredibly intense, an intensity made all the more stunning when you consider that there is actually very little action, and the fact that most people already know the outcome (most of us were pretty sure Affleck wasn’t gonna pull a Tarantino and change history). Still, the entire film has an edge-of-your-seat feeling that makes it incredibly enjoyable. As usual, there is one standout scene, and this time it is the first (technically second) scene. The first scene is technically an animated little prologue that gives a bit of background on the revolution and why the Iranians wanted “CIA blood on their breakfast cereal”. The next scene shows the storming of the American embassy and holy crap is it fantastic.
It starts out with what seems like the entire city of Tehran assembling outside the embassy’s gates. Affleck alternates between archive footage of the actual event and some of his own camera work in which he basically recreates some of the other shots down to the last detail. It could have been kind of corny, but it works incredibly well. The storming of the embassy itself is probably the most traditionally intense scene in the movie until the climax, as Argo takes a page from Gone Baby Gone’s book and has its intensity manifest as a sense of dread throughout the entire movie. Even though you know how it ends, there’s still that “Holy crap, what’s gonna happen next?” feel to it. Back to the scene, I can remember actually being breathless in the theater, wondering how people possibly could have gotten out of this. By the time it was over, I was exhausted but eager to see the rest of the movie.
This is also the first time that Ben Affleck did not write the script of the movie he was directing. This time, first time screenwriter Chris Terrio takes the reins, and it shows. The biggest place you can see the change in screenwriter is the aforementioned humor and intensity. While the scripts Affleck and Aaron Stockard wrote for Gone Baby Gone and The Town were pretty dark and used humor to basically lighten the mood and keep it from being too over-the-top dark, Argo never really goes into that dark territory. It’s intense, like I said, but it’s not a “Who’s gonna die next?” intense so much as it’s a “What’s gonna happen next?” intense. It didn’t use humor to lighten the mood as much as it used it to keep the mood light, but not so light that it detracts from the intensity. One of the best things about Argo is it’s ability to switch between the humor of Lester Siegel and John Chambers and the intensity of the events in Iran without one taking over and stealing from the other. All in all, it was a welcome change in pace from the other two Affleck-directed movies.
I guess my only real problem stems from the characters, and it’s not even worth mentioning, but I’ll do it anyways. While the characters of Tony Mendez, Jack O’Donnell, John Chambers and Lester Siegel are all likeable, well-rounded characters, the characters of the refugees are barely touched on. A couple of them are well-rounded, but I still had a hard time keeping track of who was who, who was named what and what they did. I realize that to try to touch on every single one of them would have required a big change in pace and possibly detracted from the screenplay and pacing, but I still would have like to have seen Chris Terrio take a shot at it. Once again, it’s barely worth mentioning and won’t take away from the movie by any means, but I still felt like addressing it.
Another one of the best things about Argo is the third act, where everything starts to come together - and also fall apart. I’m not going to go into it, but during the third act the narrative splits between the three locations the movie has taken place in so far. Mendez prepares the refugees in Iran, O’Donnell tries to keep the mission going in Washington, while Lester and Chambers do the same in Hollywood. Seeing the narrative split into three storylines while still retaining it’s unified feel was fantastic and another great part of the movie for me.
Argo is nothing less than one of the best - if not the best - movies of 2012. It has great acting, with Alan Arkin giving one of his career best performances, a superb script, and incredible intensity combined with smart humor. It’s well-plotted, well-paced, and all around well-made. If you haven’t seen it already, get it when it comes out on DVD soon. You certainly won’t regret it.
ARGO’S FINAL SCORE: 28/29; 97%; A
See the trailer for Argo here.
Argo will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on February 19.
That wraps up my first series on the films of Ben Affleck. Once again, sorry about the delay between Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and thanks for reading. For those of you wondering, Gone Baby Gone was the film I gave the highest score to with a perfect 100%, and The Town and Argo tied for second with a shared score of 97%. All in all, those scores reflect my feelings pretty well, though I do think that Argo is a bit of a stronger movie than The Town. In any case, they are all fantastic movies worthy of viewing, and they all show Ben Affleck's talent as a director, one whom I very much look forward to watching in the future. On a side note, his next directorial project is the adaption of the excellent Dennis Lehane novel Live By Night, which he will also star in. Lehane previously wrote the novel Gone Baby Gone, so I'm looking forward to see what Affleck will do with this. Once more, thank you for reading. See you later.
Updated February 25, 2013 with last nights Oscar wins. Congrats Argo; you definitely deserved Best Picture in my opinion.
Wannabe Movie Critic