The opening of Argo came at a bad time for me and despite my extreme excitement for the film, it caused me to wait a week before making it to the theater. In that time, the hype surrounding this movie went into full-on hyper drive, leaving me with an expectation level that stood somewhere between “top five movie of the year” and “greatest movie in the history of mankind.” I hate when this happens as it is supremely unfair to hold a film to lofty expectations that could not possibly be reached (see: The Dark Knight Rises). As such, you know you’ve just seen a GREAT movie when you go in with absurd expectations and it still manages to completely blow those expectations away. Such is the case with Argo, a spectacular endeavor that stands as nothing short of a masterpiece. During the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a large group of American citizens was taken hostage at the US Embassy and held for over a year. Just as the takeover began, a small group of six Embassy employees snuck out a backdoor and were harbored by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), hidden away from search squads and forced to become hermits. With the pressure of the situation mounting, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendes (Ben Affleck) devised a strange plan to bring them home by having them pose as a Canadian film crew in Iran to scout locations for a Star Wars knockoff known as Argo. As the Iranian army comes closer and closer to discovering the stowaways, Mendes makes a daring gamble that puts both his life and the lives of his compatriots at stake.
What a difference a few years makes. Six years ago, if you and I had made a $50,000 bet that in 2012, Ben Affleck would direct and headline the best movie of the year, then right now you would be in possession of a worthless IOU because you would be right but I don’t have $50,000. The guy who once starred in Gigli, Paycheck, and Jersey Girl back to back to back has become, through great effort and a rededication to his craft, one of the best filmmakers the industry has to offer and a personal favorite of mine. It’s a shocking turn of events, really. It started with Gone Baby Gone, a film that gets better and better over time, and continued with The Town, a film I absolutely love that doesn’t get nearly enough credit in my opinion. Argo, however, takes all of the promise, potential, and skill Affleck displayed in those previous films and ramps it up into an incredibly well-made and painstakingly attentive film going experience.
From the first moments, Argo sets the tone for what the audience should expect by throwing you directly into an insanely tense atmosphere that does not let up until the credits roll. It’s a very organic and natural progression that Affleck allows his story to build through and as it goes, so does the drama. Near the very end of the film, I found myself taking in a giant gasp of air that should only be reserved for trips to the surface of a pool after jumping off the high dive and realized that I’d barely been breathing for, oh, a solid hour. The first hour sets the stage meticulously for what is to come in a slow but still thrilling manner and in the final hour, as every aspect of the setup collides together, I found my pulse quickening and my heart pounding as if my own life depended on Tony Mendes’ plan. Without question, the second hour of Argo is simultaneously one of the most satisfying and intense hours of film that I have ever had the pleasure of watching. This is the very definition of a nail biter, and I mean that quite literally as the bloody stumps that used to be my fingers will attest. The simple way in which Affleck creates such a rich and thoroughly compelling dramatic thriller is an absolute stroke of genius that should (and will) be rewarded by every award committee worth its salt.
Across the board, the performances within Argo are on par with the direction and the narrative itself. These are subtle, understated portrayals turned in by one of the greatest cast of supporting players I can ever remember. The film’s IMDB page is a Who’s Who of tremendous character actors, all of whom fit their respective roles like a glove. Kyle Chandler, Bob Gunton, Chris Messina, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver and more all receive various levels of screen time and all hit their marks wonderfully. The cast’s true glory, however, belongs to the trinity of Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and American Treasure John Goodman. As Mendes’ boss, Cranston brings a savvy mix of intensity and compassion to his role, making his character’s spring into action incredibly satisfying. It is great to see Cranston take on a film role that is equal to his immense talent after a recent string of less-than-stellar appearances. Arkin plays the fake movie’s producer and truly nails the no nonsense approach required by the role. You could argue that this is just Arkin being Arkin but my response would be, why mess with something great? He fits his role perfectly. And as a make-up artist with a CIA past, Goodman is…well, Goodman is magnificent. He maximizes his limited screen time beautifully, ensuring that every second he is on screen is memorable. When he is on his game, there are few in the industry who do supporting work better than Goodman. All of these performances (and many more I do not have time to highlight) serve to highlight the strength of Affleck’s own subdued portrayal which suits the film quite well.
Every aspect of Argo works in conjunction to create a film that everyone should be able to find merit in. It is well-shot, well-written, and extremely well-acted movie and one that I plan on seeing many, many more times and it might just be enough to make us all forget about Affleck’s past acting transgressions. Or maybe not. Gigli is really stinking bad.
Argo Director: Ben Affleck Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Scoot McNairy Rated: R (language, intensity) Recommended For: Every movie fan 12 years and up. Seriously, go see this one.