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The Bottom Line
Should you see it?
Argo is the most suspenseful film of 2012 thus far, not to mention it's smart, funny, and expertly portrays real-life events.
The CIA's bold plan to rescue six Americans from the hotbed of fury that is 1979 Iran is nearly complete. The six men and women and their CIA escort have made it past the armed guards, through the secondary checks, and are waiting for confirmation at the gate. Waiting. Director Ben Affleck
knows the suspense is in the waiting. Time marches on... still no approval.
is one of the best films of 2012 for many reasons: Its believable portrayal of real events, its sympathetic characters, its smart comic relief, and, above all, its fantastic sense of urgency. Methodically directed by Affleck — whose last film, The Town
, proved the actor was no slouch behind the lens — Argo
is a giant leap forward for a new voice in American filmmaking. It's no stretch to imagine the film, and its director, on stage come Oscar night this February.
Beginning with a taut prologue explaining the events leading up to and surrounding the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-'80, Argo
transitions to the inside of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during that time. Iranian protesters are outside the gates and closing in fast. The Americans inside, over 400 of them, are trashing every document in the files, and trying to stave off being taken hostage. However, six men and women, with access to the street, escape and flee to the Canadian Ambassador's house, a safe haven, for now. There they wait.
Back home, the CIA is weighing options. They have a lot of bad ideas (plan A is to give the hostages bicycles) and they need to pick the best one. Tony Mendez (Affleck) proposes something bold: he'll go to Iran as a Canadian film producer and bring the six home with him as his crew. Immediately shot down as too insane, the plan is eventually approved out of desperation. All Mendez needs now is a movie.
In L.A. Mendez enlists the help of John Chambers (John Goodman
) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin
), two Hollywood veterans who've helped the CIA in the past. They find a script called Argo,
a Star Wars
knock-off that requires a desert setting, making Iran a believable location. To make his cover realistic also, Mendez buys the script, creates an entire marketing campaign around the film, and stages PR events so the press will pick up the story.
The meticulousness of the set up is the triumph of the film's first act. Affleck is actually making two films here. The settings — L.A. and Tehran — separate the action neatly for the audience. Despite all its complex moving parts, Argo
plays out cohesively and the director can take credit.
Affleck simplifies everything while deftly using his camera to weave the tale. It's so subtle it's easy to miss. He uses hundreds of shots and angles to set his pace. A simple conversation between Mendez and his station chief Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston
) as they walk down the hallway contains no less than 20 cuts, each from different vantage points. Recalling modern filmmakers like Michael Mann
or Tony Gilroy
, Affleck's professional style lends itself perfectly to a film that needs to get expository background information across in dialogue. There's a lot of talking.
The pace is kept brisk by Goodman and Arkin who lend the film its sharp wit. The two veterans are fantastic here in similar roles as older men with no illusions about their industry. Arkin is wonderfully cynical, stealing every scene he's in and coining the film's signature line, "Argo fuck yourself." Goodman, too, revels in delivering lines like, "You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day."
Meanwhile, in Iran, hostages face mock executions and the six Americans in hiding torture themselves with second guesses and regret. "I think we're going to die here," one tells another as the days drag on. The urgency builds by the minute.
The film's second half takes place entirely in Iran as Mendez travels to execute the plan. The wonder of Argo
is how Affleck plays it out. Building suspense leading up to a foregone conclusion is no small feat, yet somehow, scene after scene, he has you questioning whether the hostages will make it out.
In one memorable sequence Mendez drives the six fugitives through an angry Iranian crowd in a Volkswagon bus. The camera work puts you right there with them. The mob envelopes the bus, closing in on the Americans, creating a sense of claustrophobia that has you wondering how they'll possibly make it through this alive. It works as a micrososm of the entire film. You wait for them to make it, and with palms greased, the joy is in the waiting.
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