As though his first two features Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town weren't proof enough, Argo provides further evidence of Ben Affleck's continued maturation as a skillful, no-nonsense director. Falling into the unimpeachable category of “a good story, well told”, Argo is a near perfect Hollywood dramatization of a true story, deftly balancing tight thrills, human drama, and comic relief within a hugely entertaining and satisfying picture.
Starting off with a very brief history of Iran's political turmoil in the mid-to-late 70s, Affleck proceeds to drop us into a riveting opening sequence of a civilian mob storming the American embassy, brilliantly splicing together archived news footage with meticulously recreated shots (this scene alone is enough to justify William Goldenberg walking away with next year's Oscar for Best Film Editing). Intent on taking hostages so that the U.S. will relinquish the detested Shah who is being harboured stateside, the revolutionaries capture all but six embassy employees, who slip out the back and seek shelter at the house of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). To prevent the unaccounted-for six from being hunted down and executed as spies, the CIA rushes to enact and escape plan. Dissatisfied with his colleagues' suggestions, special agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with an unlikely strategy to smuggle out the fugitives; as a Canadian film crew on a location scout for a sci-fi movie.
With help from his Hollywood contact John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel (John Goodman and Alan Arkin respectively, providing much of the film's levity), Mendez concocts a convincing cover for his mission to Iran, but convincing his six nervous passengers to go along with the rickety scheme proves more difficult than fooling the Iranian revolutionaries on the vigilant lookout for them.
All petty quibbles about the historical accuracy of this supposedly true story aside, Argo is an exemplar of storytelling, which is ultimately more important than a stolid transcription of the facts. Scripted with layered, narrative precision by Chris Terrio, the filmmakers are able to derive great tension from the jeopardy of our heroes even though we basically know how it all ends. No one has ever made getting held up at the airport as exciting as Affleck and film editor William Goldenberg do here. The other production values aren't particularly showy, but prove invaluable in creating a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts. Rodrigo Prieto's crisp cinematography indulges in a few striking images here and there, but mostly serves as an efficient vehicle for the precise period sets, costuming, and of course, the performances.
Every inch an organic ensemble, the acting really pops without overt limelight hogging. Goodman and Arkin delight with their warmly acerbic takes on some Hollywood stereotypes. Breaking Bad anchor Bryan Cranston is heated and harried as Mendez's CIA boss. Garber conveys restrained concern as the saintly Canadian ambassador, and the six-would be hostages make the most of divided screen exposure to evoke their characters. At the nexus of it all is Affleck, giving a quiet, selfless central performance that allows his cast to work wonders around him.
**** out of ****