- Rated R
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All photos © Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
ew directors have enjoyed as much success as Ben Affleck this early in their careers. But could he be the next great American filmmaker? Many people would have laughed at the mere suggestion just a few years ago, but the actor-turned-director has been making a strong case for himself ever since stepping behind the camera for 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone,” and proved that he wasn’t a one-hit wonder with “The Town.” For his latest project, Affleck has moved away from the comforts of Boston to a much larger stage, and delivers his best film yet in the process. A politically charged thriller that feels eerily timely in the wake of the recent U.S. embassy attacks in Libya, “Argo” is a well-written and expertly paced recount of an unbelievably true story that boldly announces itself as the first real contender of Oscar season.
On November 4, 1979, the Iranian revolution reached its boiling point as militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking several Americans hostage. In the midst of the chaos, six U.S Foreign Service workers escaped and found shelter in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), though it was only a matter of time before they'd be discovered and killed. When the CIA failed to come up with a plan to rescue the six refugees, they called in "exfiltration" specialist Tony Mendes (Affleck), who concocted a seemingly impossible plan to fly into Tehran and sneak them out of the country under the guise of a Canadian film crew on a location scout. But in order to make the cover story seem legit, Mendes had to first travel to Los Angeles, where he teamed up with a esteemed makeup artist (John Goodman) and old-school producer (Alan Arkin) to start production on their fake sci-fi movie “Argo.”
There have been a number of great political thrillers in recent years, but “Argo” is unique in that it presents the challenge of juggling the more comedic Hollywood insider stuff (which is difficult enough on its own) in addition to the main plot. This is where Affleck’s presence behind the camera really shines, because he makes the blending of the contrasting tones look almost effortless. The comedy never undercuts the seriousness of the action in Tehran, and yet the strategically placed laughs help to break up the incredible tension that mounts over the course of the film. It’s been a while since a movie has literally had me on the edge of my seat, and although anyone with access to the Internet can find out how the conflict ended before they even walk into the theater, “Argo” is still extremely taut and suspenseful, topped off by a fantastic nail-biter ending.
For a movie this excellent, it’s a bit strange that there aren’t any standout performances, but there isn’t a single weak one, either. Ben Affleck does a fine job as Mendes, though it’s not a particularly showy role, and he receives some terrific support from his first-rate cast, including Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin and the six actors playing the refugees. In fact, despite all the things that Affleck does right, his decision to rely on more understated performances is perhaps the most important, because it not only upholds the movie’s docudrama feel, but it shows he's interested first and foremost in telling a good story. And while he may not have the experience to be considered one of the greats just yet, if he continues to make films like "Argo," it won't be long before he is.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
It’s not surprising that Warner Bros. has gone all out for the Blu-ray release of their Oscar hopeful, but the bonus material is even better than expected. The feature-length picture-in-picture track boasts interviews with the people involved in the event (like CIA operative Tony Mendes, former President Jimmy Carter, former Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and the “house guests”), while director Ben Affleck and writer Chris Terrio discuss the actual making of the movie on the disc's audio commentary. The excellent retrospective “Rescued from Tehran: We Were There” uses additional interview footage with the real-life subjects about their memories of the event, and there's also a pair of production featurettes on capturing the authenticity of the period and the CIA-Hollywood connection. Rounding out the two-disc set is a 46-minute documentary titled “Escape from Iran: The Hollywood Option” and a DVD and UltraViolet digital copy of the movie.