Ben Affleck has finally arrived.
I know that sounds strange to say when you take into account the lengthy and successful career Affleck has already had to this point, but, as a filmmaker, Affleck has finally put it all together for his new film ARGO, the big screen telling of the C.I.A rescue of six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis under the cover of a science fiction flick potentially being shot in the country. ARGO marks Affleck's third feature film behind the camera, and, while I thought his first two films were a step in the right direction, there was plenty of room for improvement in both that kept me from fully enjoying them - GONE BABY GONE (an extremely slow second act) and THE TOWN (peaked way too early that the climax couldn't match the earlier robberies). However, there's very little to knock in ARGO, as the telling of these real-life events makes for a fascinating story as it is. Affleck is able to capitalize on that and ratchet up the intensity in this exciting thriller as ARGO follows a rather simple formula in its race against time set-up.
Affleck stars in the film as well, playing Tony Mendes, a C.I.A. expert whose specialty is extracting vulnerable targets from dicey situations. In 1979, Mendez was tasked with trying to come up with the least bad idea to get a group of six Americans holed up in with the Canadian Ambassador in Iran during the hostage crisis there that had the U.S. Embassy occupied by Islamic militants who took 52 people captive for a period of 444 days out. Just before the Embassy fell, six workers managed to escape, but it's only a matter of time before they are found to be missing by the Iranian terrorists who have sweatshop kids piecing together all of the shredded classified documents, which happen to contain photos of everyone who worked at the Embassy. The best our intelligence specialists could come up with was dropping off bikes for them to pedal hundreds of miles for pick-up at the Turkish border, but Mendes hatched a scheme to create a fake movie production company looking to potentially shoot their sci-fi production in Iran. The hidden six would serve as the production crew now in Iran to scout locations while he served as the producer, and with a solid cover and enough preparation to make the movie never to be legitimate, it would be their best shot to get out of the country and back home alive.
ARGO follows a very simple three-step formula in becoming such a crowd-pleaser. It builds the C.I.A.'s operation, it allows Affleck's Mendes to train its participants, and then it moves towards the plan's execution. Three easy steps with enough obstacle along the way slowly builds the difficulty of Mendes' reaching a successful outcome, and it allows ARGO to suck you into the feeling of not knowing what might happen even though history has already settled it. You still have worry that the six Americans may be located or that the Ambassador's housekeeper may rat them out to her fellow countrymen or that someone may become wise to the falsehood of the movie ARGO or that the government may cripple the plan at exactly the wrong time. There are occasions where ARGO feels as if it may be following a specific formula for thrillers, but when that formula works and continues to get your heart pounding, why do something drastically different for no other reason than change?
The set-up to ARGO is key to making the whole picture work and, while Affleck, the director, does an fine job in capturing an understated performance by Affleck, the actor, allowing the overall film to shine as a story rather than casting the emphasis on individual players, there are a couple of absolutely phenomenal performances given in a supporting capacity by both John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Goodman, as famed Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, and Arkin, as producer Lester Siegel, lend an air of authenticity to the quick-paced Hollywood game as they aid Mendes in setting up the cover for ARGO. It's an interesting glimpse at the bullshit that goes on behind the scenes in cutting deals and working the press in order to drum up interest in any film, good or bad. It makes for many of the ARGO's lighter and surprisingly funnier moments, which set the tone for the film to really get serious once they move from the backlot to the frontlines. Arkin steals just about every scene he's a part of, including a brash back-and-forth with Richard Klein in trying to acquire the rights to the script that'll be the basis for ARGO. Also, it's nice to see Bryan Cranston used properly again as Mendes' superior Jack O'Donnell. Even as he gives us a phenomenal character study with Walter White on BREAKING BAD, Cranston has been given these caricature-type roles in films like TOTAL RECALL, ROCK OF AGES and RED TAILS as of late. Therefore, it's a pleasure seeing him work with some material that has some teeth for once outside of the AMC series.
Once inside Iran, ARGO does what thrillers do best, and the situation is able to carry itself throughout the film as we're reminded that there are no other options for getting these people out safely. It may be a fucked mission, but it's the only mission, and it makes for one hell of a ride on which to go along. ARGO isn't looking to break any new ground as a thriller, but it does what it's supposed to incredibly well, making for one outstanding piece of filmmaking. Affleck has once again improved upon his prior work, and delivers a film that hits all of the right beats and will have you instinctually cheering at the proper moments even when you know they're coming. You can't help yourself. You're compelled to give yourself over to this story, forgetting that it's already in the history books, and that's the sign of something special right there.
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