Review: Argo

And the career resurgence of Ben Affleck continues. After finding himself trapped in studio fodder of increasingly pandering proportions for nearly a decade, the Oscar winner pursued a vocation in directing, and there is no evidence thus far to suggest it has been against his favor. He explored the crime worlds and the generational ties that bound in his first two features to the city of Boston, and in his latest, Affleck expands his borders quite literally. Exploring the true events of an operation to save Americans following the 1979 Iranian hostage crises, Argo is a clear step forward for a director who is only on his third feature. Though the film fails to compel on a thematic level, it remains a highly visceral experience, with an increasingly steady hand on the captain’s deck.

The opening ten minutes of Argo are arguably its best, cleverly displaying the tumultuous history of the flux of leadership in Iran in the 1970s with storyboards before throwing itself in media res into the American embassy in Tehran, under assault by the Iranian public. Frenetic editing is not uncommon in today’s attention deficit driven media culture, but Argo employs it brilliantly in its gripping opening scenes as the Americans act quickly to escape the grip of the enraged Iranians. Six manage to escape the embassy, and are safely transported to the Canadian ambassador’s home. When word of this reaches the CIA, plenty of bogus options for rescue are put on the table, and the most ludicrous one may very well pay off. Exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) arrives at the hilariously persuasive plan: use Hollywood to location scout for a fake film to be shot in Iran, and use the Americans to double as the film crew. Heading the operation, it is up to Mendez to see that all six Americans return home safely.

What has been most evident of Affleck’s blossoming directorial talent is his feel for casting, and Argo makes the case for one of the most robust ensembles of the year. Plenty of fine committed performances come from well known stars like Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman, but it is the lesser knowns, particularly those playing the six stranded Americans who allow for the tension to simmer so well. As their day by day chances of survival increasingly dwindle, the Americans begin to fight, talking over each other, no one certain of where their destiny lies, even when Mendez arrives. In particular, Scoot McNairy does memorable work at Joe Stafford, who is increasingly dubious of the plausibility of Mendez’s operation. Affleck himself is pretty solid here, in an non flashy role that keeps him grounded. However, as the protagonist, Tony Mendez lacks much of a character arc. There is an attached subplot involving Mendez’s divorce from his wife and son to compensate for that arc, but it feels largely unnecessary.

The tone of Argo is quite tricky to pull off: it is a mission of deadly seriousness, with extreme consequences if the outcome proves unfortunate. However, the idea of a Star Wars rip off as the catalyst and primary alibi for rescuing the Americans is too bizarre not to laugh at. Affleck manages to balance this tone near flawlessly, using the humor the situation to carry the film’s middle forty minutes, and allowing the gravity of the situation to increasingly sink in as the film barrels towards its climax in Tehran’s airport. Several scenes are executed with solid flair, crosscutting between events in the CIA headquarters with the Americans on the ground in Tehran. Argo wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve, as evidenced by similar visual styles from similarly gritty political thrillers. Dollied tracking shots in the CIA headquarters that bob and weave through desks and cubicles recall All the President’s Men and the frenetic opening and gradually simmering climax evoke the immediacy of The Battle of Algiers. These inspirations and more are a testament to Affleck’s directorial intelligence, from his overall look of the time period to minor details suggesting Mendez’s drinking problems.

Despite the film’s overall narrative propulsion, Argo rarely pauses to pursue anything thematically compelling. The film comes to a satisfying resolution, yes, but it makes few sacrifices for the end result. Mendez’s family life could have been a compelling addition were it fleshed out more, but its ultimately limp treatment keeps from rewarding the audience fully. In any case, Argo is a serious step forward by Ben Affleck, who cannot yet be counted among the Clooneys and Eastwoods just yet, but if he continues to pursue material as visually and narratively compelling as this, he could very well find a way to completely erase anyone’s memory of Gigli.

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~ by romancinema on November 8, 2012.

One Response to “Review: Argo”

  1. Definitely seems like a flick that more people admire for being a really good, true story, rather than being a really good movie. It’s not a bad flick by any means, but not as perfect as many people are praising it as being. Good review.

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