Ben Affleck's third feature-length film, the terrifically suspenseful dramatic thriller "Argo," is the second picture to use Warner Bros.' 1970s logo in 2012. And like "Magic Mike," the Soderbergh film that employed the same logo earlier this year, it's an augur of what's to come, announcing a tone, mood and millieu that is imported straight from that era. Sporting a love for movies on his sleeve, Affleck's film gives nods to the smart, entertaining and engaging thrillers from the '70s -- "All the President's Men," "Three Days of the Condor," et al. -- and playfully with B-movie science-fiction pictures of the era without ever trying to lean too hard into any specific homage.
Featuring a stellar ensemble cast that borders on character actor porn (no major stars involved and none needed), standout perforrmances by Affleck, Scoot McNairy and Alan Arkin, and finely crafted with the thoughtful eye of its director, "Argo" proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that his earlier efforts were no fluke. Previously having helmed the sturdy, Boston-set crime dramas "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," "Argo" cements Affleck's position as one of the most viable directors in Hollywood for serious dramatic thrillers that are both crowd-pleasing and intelligent. And if questions remained whether Affleck could direct a picture outside the Providence and New Hampshire borderlines of Massachusetts, this Iran-set drama quashes any concerns one might have had.
Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say, and "Argo" hews closely to that maxim, centering on a seemingly outlandish premise actually based in true fact during the Iran Hostage Crisis of the late '70s. Directed and starring Affleck as Tony Mendez, the story centers on this CIA exfiltration expert who designs a near-preposterous plan to extract six stranded Americans out of Tehran after the 1979 invasion of the American embassy — by having them masquerade as a Hollywood film crew shooting a fake schlocky sci-fi film. "If we wanted applause, we'd have joined the circus," Bryan Cranston's CIA head Jack O'Donnell tells Affleck's Mendez, and it makes another strong proverb for the CIA's secret and silent modus operandis in pulling off this thrilling and super risky jack-in-the-box scheme.
Opening with a partially animated storyboarded prologue explaining the events that lead to Iran's animosity toward the U.S. government – a complicated tale of vengeance for the longstanding U.S. support of the recently overthrown Shah of Iran, if you want to keep it simple -- Affleck wisely boils down this complex diplomatic crisis for the viewer, but within a framework completely apropos to the story.
After the Iranian revolution hit its boiling point in the fall of 1979, Islamist protesters and militants took over the American Embassy in Tehran, keeping 52 U.S. citizens hostage for 444 days. Among the chaos, six Americans – played by McNairy, Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé – escaped, secretly taking refuge in the Canadian consulate. With the clock ticking on their whereabouts (surely they'll be killed if they're discovered), the CIA, short on a viable plan, reluctantly invokes the "best bad idea" they have at the behest of their extrication expert Mendez.
A gripping nail-biter, superbly suspenseful and yet occassionally light on its toes, one could almost describe the picture as akin to "Munich" with a sense of humor. One side of the picture starring Alan Arkin as a washed-up but still resourceful Hollywood producer and John Goodman as a make-up artist who has been previously employed by the CIA, is snappy and almost absurd. Mendez is enlisting these men to make a fake sci-film, after all. But whenever the film's fake movie plot threatens to become too silly or comedic, "Argo" reminds the viewer of the life-or-death consequences of this clandestine mission with a portentous gravitas. The picture's aforementioned intro – melding animation, history and poliitics – also evinces how it masterfully mixes the various timbres and tenors within the picture. With references to "Star Wars," "Planet of the Apes," Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and other 1970s pop culture touchstones, while it might sound homage-heavy, "Argo" tastefully (and organically) mixes in all elements of that era's millieu.
Also featuring Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, and Chris Messina, with appearances by Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Michael Parks, Richard Kind, Adrienne Barbeau and many more, "Argo" practically bursts at the seams, but each great character actor has their place, serving a complex and ambitious narrative that expertly juggles political intrigue, tense emotional stakes and Hollywood glitter, resulting in an absorbing and engrossing picture.
Having majored in Middle Eastern studies at Occidental College before dropping out, this period seems to have served Affleck well. While the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian politics of its day are villanized in the picture, there's largely an even hand at play -- one that, say, Oliver Stone could never comprehend.
Based on the Joshuah Bearman 2007 Wired article "Escape from Tehran," the films's momentum is pulsating and the tension is pitched up to nervewracking levels that should leave the viewer dazzled (and perhaps a few fellow directors in awe). Written by Chris Terrio (and featured on the Black List in 2010), the screenplay is equally taut and yet suprisingly humorous. "Argo" has at least a dozen quotable and comic bon mots, but its humor is mostly tension relief from excruciatingly intense and coiled do-or-die situations.
Playing a father, a borderline alcoholic (nicely understated) and a husband separated from his wife, Affleck and the screenplay adds wonderful emotional texture throughout the picture, giving it humanity and stakes that other thrillers of that era didn't really possess. This emotional throughline is also examined for all of the six American embassy employees, some of whom are working with their loved ones and are particularly affected. The indie up-and-comer McNairy is certainly the stand out as Joe Stafford, the escapee deeply skeptical about putting his life and his wife's (Bishé) in the hands of a man he has never met.
Running two hours long, "Argo" is top notch across the board, from its urgent and Middle Eastern-flavored score by Alexandre Desplat, to its sharp and observational cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto ("Brokeback Mountain," "Babel"). While its Oscar chances are unclear – Affleck's almost equally terrific "The Town" was largely ignored by the Academy in 2011 – "Argo" is impressive and now feels like the actor-turned-director's time to earn serious plaudits. Extraordinarily suspenseful, extremely well-told and effortless in its complex tonal balance, the Telluride Film Festival couldn't have asked for a better opener; a captivating and thoughtful true-life drama that boasts a story so astonishing, it could only be told in the movies. [A-]