Movie review: Argo

By Mark Lieberman

After wallowing for years as the bland leading man in a series of formulaic Hollywood efforts, Ben Affleck has recently re-established himself as a reputable director with ambitious, well-received pieces like “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town.”

Affleck demonstrates his newly acquired talents with “Argo,” a sophisticated, taut suspense drama that employs real-life events to simultaneously exhilarate the audience and tweak Affleck’s beloved film industry. Likely to be a contender for several Academy Awards, “Argo” is gripping but not overly serious, smart but not overly complex, well-paced but not overlong. It’s just right.

The film begins in 1979 Iran, detailing relevant history through subtle animation. A stunning first sequence depicts an intense frenzy as Iranian protesters infiltrate the American embassy and take 52 Americans hostage. Six of the Americans manage to escape the Iranians’ clutches and find temporary refuge in the Canadian Embassy, but to leave from there would be to endanger their lives.

Back in D.C., CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) devises a risky and outlandish scheme to smuggle the hidden ambassadors out of militant Iran with minimum suspicion. With the help of Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman, “Trouble with the Curve”) and legendary producer Lester Siegel (a hilariously dry Alan Arkin, “The Muppets”), Mendez constructs the trappings of a fake science-fiction film called “Argo” and travels to Iran, where he hopes to transport the hostages disguised as a film crew.

“Argo” avoids many of the pitfalls of lesser thrillers. Its focus is tight, with no extraneous subplots to distract from the driving rescue narrative. The process-oriented script by Chris Terrio ignores melodramatic tendencies to focus on the simple problem of how best to retrieve the hostages, detailing necessary machinations like trade publications, script readings and publicity. Such buildup amplifies the power of the later, more action-oriented section.

The dialogue is sharp, with witticisms about the movie industry and Melendez’s drinking habits drawing surprisingly cathartic laughs amidst the pervasive tension. Affleck seems to be simultaneously mocking and celebrating his own industry, lampooning its tendency to produce schlocky science-fiction and foster unjustified egos while reinforcing the idea that movies, frivolous as they often seem, can make an impact.

The cast is superb. Affleck proves to be a capable (if not earth-shattering) lead, understated as a man who excels at his job even as his colleagues doubt him. Bryan Cranston’s intensity from “Breaking Bad” translates seamlessly into his role as Mendez’s boss, a man whose patience quickly wears thin. Goodman and Arkin, meanwhile, provide some of the film’s most vibrant comedic scenes; they are particularly adept at delivering several well-timed F-bombs and satirizing various Hollywood professions.

Admittedly, “Argo” is not entirely original or even particularly surprising. The action sequences and dramatic conversations are compelling enough to offset much of the predictability, but the climax and denouement are far from shocking. Nonetheless, both pack a surprisingly emotional punch. Tony’s marital struggles, meanwhile, feel tacked on in a few obligatory scenes of Mendez moping generically, but the film’s moving conclusion and last line partially offset that unnecessary wrinkle as well.

Affleck’s direction raises the suspense and accentuates the mood with such finesse that the relative lack of originality allows “Argo” to excel beyond conventional iterations of its genre.

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