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Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Another big Oscar contender and another new release. Will the hits ever stopping coming?

Effectively sealing Ben Affleck's reputation as a great, bare-bones director with a real penchant for nail-biting thrillers, Argo tells a story so absurdly unbelievable, it can only be true. 

Set in 1980, at the same time of the well known hostage crisis in Iran (if you're of a certain age, at least) where the country's American embassy was besieged by militant Iranians calling for the return of their previous tyrant (as opposed to their then current one - or their current one for that matter) to stand trial for crimes against his people, Argo is about the six Americans who escaped the embassy but were holed up in the home of the Canadian ambassador with no means of escape. Enter CIA operative, Tony Mendez (Affleck, looking for all the world like an Avett Brother) who comes up with a plan that, depending on its outcome, would either go down as one of the CIA's most creative, gutsy and ingenious rescue operations or its most embarrassingly disastrous. 

His plan, coming from, of all places, a late night viewing of Battle for The Planet of the Apes, is to create a fake science fiction movie production for which he would go to Iran officially as a scouting agent looking for suitably exotic shooting locations and under the guise of which, he would smuggle the six "house guests" out of the country as his Canadian production crew. In order for it to work though, he needs to make the movie seem real enough and for that he turns to producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to put together the most convincing, fake hit-scifi movie ever.

The greatest pleasure of Argo is watching Affleck juggle not only all the different story elements, but the massive tonal shifts as well. The film is, at different points, a white-knuckle thriller, a farcical comedy and a true life drama and not only does Affleck make each element work, he somehow finds a way to tie them together into a cohesive, dramatically effective and frequently funny piece of work - on occasion, even at the same time.  
Admittedly, Argo could have used some sharper characterization and, considering its subject matter, it feels less substantial than it probably should, but what Affleck does manage to achieve with the film is hardly any small feat. He takes an incredible true story and makes it work as a top-tier piece of entertainment that is as effective at drawing in its audience as the best Hollywood crowd pleaser. This is no dry historical lesson, but a lively and fresh piece of crowd-pleasing cinema that faces the complexity of its historical context without ever getting bogged down by it.  

Affleck's direction is perfectly light and zippy for the film's fake movie plot, but it's his handling of the final thriller elements that truly sets the film apart. The final half hour of the film is gloriously tense, edge-of-your-seat suspense filmmaking at its very best and ratchets up the zippy pacing of the first three-quarters of the film to truly breathless proportions. It may clock in at just over two hours but Argo is unquestionably the snappiest of the year's best film contenders.   

All the attention has been on Affleck as a director, and rightly so, but he also turns in a very fine and very controlled central performance that is complemented by, rather than entirely overshadowed, by a spectacular cast that includes such acting heavyweights as John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston, while also getting - once again as director - great performances from the "smaller names" in his cast.

It's not quite the masterpiece that some have seemed to suggest - again, I can't help but want a bit more meaty substance with my masterpieces - but Argo is an expertly crafted piece of work that should work for a far larger audience than most of the awards season's other big hitters.

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