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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 12, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 41
Argo a tensely terrific true-life thriller
Arts & Entertainment
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Argo a tensely terrific true-life thriller

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ARGO
Opens October 12


Ben Affleck's third film as a director, Argo, is his best effort yet, and while it doesn't necessarily do anything new or tell a story whose outcome is ever in doubt, watching it is such a tensely terrific experience it's hard to imagine another studio effort released in 2012 being anywhere near as thrilling. In short, this movie is awesome right from the word go, bringing to light a story so absurd and out of this world that it just had to be true.

Based on information declassified by President Clinton in 1997, the story is set during and just after the 1979 takeover of the United States embassy in Tehran by Iranian radicals. While 52 Americans were being taken hostage, six of them managed to sneak out the back and make their way to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Unsure of what to do, the U.S. government at first tasks the State Department with getting the escapees out of the country, not wanting to use covert agents in fear that capture might lead to the deaths of some or all of the embassy hostages.

Enter CIA 'exfiltration' specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck). He knows bad ideas when he hears them, and all of the State Department's proposals are awful. It's up to him to come up with a plan that can be enacted quickly and get the group out of the country fast, while minimizing the diplomatic consequences for the Canadian government.

STRANGER THAN FICTION
What he concocts is right out of Wag the Dog. Mendez turns to Hollywood for cover using the script for a potential science-fiction epic set on a world made up of massive deserts, called Argo, as the means to facilitate a daring rescue of the trapped Americans. It's an idea that shouldn't work and yet he's going to stake his life on its outcome, knowing that once he steps into the country, script and storyboards in hand, there's no turning back and failure for him means almost certain death.

We know what happens. It's historical fact, former President Jimmy Carter explaining in numerous interviews the dynamics of the plot and why it was so important to keep it classified and American involvement more or less secret for almost two decades. Yet Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio (Heights) do a fabulous job of driving the proceedings forward with an urgent energy that is inherently personal. Not only do they get right in the middle of Mendez's headspace, they also do a magnificent job of bringing the six Americans and their conflicting feelings to life. There is an immediacy that is felt in every frame, every moment, from start to finish - the film such a kinetically invigorating experience it doesn't matter a lick that the outcome itself is never in doubt.

As much as I liked Gone Baby Gone, as great as elements of The Town undeniably are, nothing prepared me for just how superb much of Argo turns out to be. Everything is in balance, no step out of place, Affleck constructing a modern day variation on Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men or Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor, doing so in a way that feels fresh and new yet also of days of Hollywood past. The finished film is a master class of cinematic prowess, and from Rodrigo Prieto's (Brokeback Mountain) cinematography to William Goldenberg's (The Insider) editing to Sharon Seymour's (The Ides of March) production design to Alexandre Desplat's (The King's Speech) score, everything works in such symmetry the cumulative effect borders on startling.

TOP-NOTCH CAST
There are great performances throughout the film, with the likes of Bryan Cranston (playing Mendez's superior Jack O'Donnell), Academy Award-winner Alan Arkin (easing into the role of Hollywood producer Lester Siegel), and John Goodman (portraying legendary Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers) all given moments to shine. But it is Scoot McNairy who stands out the most, and why his work as Joe Stafford, a member of the trapped six, isn't getting Supporting Actor talk mystifies me. His character has an incredible arc, going from highs to lows at the drop of the hat. He's unforgettable, his climactic scene dealing with a group of Iranian guards one of the most breathlessly electrifying I've seen this year. His transformation is key to the plan's success, and without him making it so believably authentic I doubt Argo would work nearly as well as it ultimately does.

All the same, this is Affleck's movie all the way through. He's constructed a true-life thriller his Hollywood predecessors - folks like the aforementioned Pakula and Pollack, Michael Mann, Henry Hathaway, John Huston, Curtis Hanson, or Jules Dassin - would have been proud to call their own. He presents the facts with a dynamic urgency that's unrelenting, with even the humorous beats tinged with a note of apprehensive tension causing my palms to sweat. Argo is an immediate Best Picture frontrunner and undeniably one of 2012's best films, Affleck coming into his own and proving he's a top-tier directorial talent whose star is only starting to rise.

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