A screenshot from Argo featuring Ben Affleck (center) as Tony Mendez. (Photo : Warner Bros.)
Ben Affleck's first two films Gone Baby Gone and The Town were both solid films packed with energetic pacing and solid performances. But few would categorize them as great films. Argo, Affleck's latest work, is a great film that incorporates all the elements that made Affleck's past endeavors successful, but crafts them into a truly gripping portrayal of human courage.
Set during the Iranian Revolution, the film depicts a historic CIA rescue of six Americans who escaped from the capture of the US Embassy and were sheltered in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. At the center of the film is Tony Menez (Ben Affleck), a lonely CIA operative whose only chance at saving these people from Iran is to fabricate a film production and then pretend to be on a location scout with the six survivors. From the opening frames to the final moments, the film simply tightens the tension on the viewer until it reaches a cathartic finale. When that cathartic moment occurs (it's hard to miss it), the audience at the press screening erupted with applause.
Affleck's directing in this film is flawless as he combines a variety of styles into a truly cohesive film. The opening of the film relates the history of Iran leading up to the revolution before throwing the viewer right into the massive crowd protesting outside the US embassy with an iconic image of a burning flag. The sound mix is deafening in this sequence, but adds to the level of immersion and discomfort of watching these people dehumanized for an ideal. The sequence has a combination of 8mm and 16 mm shots that give it a cinema vérité feel that only adds to the realism of the sequence..
A montage in the first half depicts the reading of the script for the fictional project Argo juxtaposed with the Iranians announcing their threats to the world. This sequence initially seems as a means of giving us an idea of events coming to pass and simply cutting through necessary exposition. However, Affleck aims for something more and builds it up to what initially seems like an execution of some prisoners in the Embassy. The sequence builds to a mini-climax that colors the other two parallel sequences and heightens the tension in the film. The film's final 45 minutes are easily among the most riveting as the six survivors and Mendez attempt their long awaited escape.
Affleck layers the film with comedy to momentarily relieve the audience of its intense pressure. When Mendez goes to Hollywood to engage legendary makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), the film takes a lighter tone and creates some truly genuine laughs. The film piles on slight jabs at the superficiality killing the film industry in the 1970s and even an airplane shot of the desecrated iconic Hollywood sign on the mountaintop created a whirl of laughter. Later in the film, he humanizes the revolutionary soldiers of Iran as they enjoy themselves with storyboards for Argo. It is humorous, but a thoughtful gesture as well.
But Affleck also includes some truly memorable moments at the other end of the spectrum when things get truly dark. The night before the attempted escape, the six survivors celebrate in a poignant and intimate moment that finally shows the relief that these characters have been lacking for the entire film.
Affleck's performance as Mendez is subdued but solid. Affleck's direction coupled with Chris Terrio's clever script keep Mendez's character a secret in the early going and slowly reveal him with hints and clues about his family life and interaction with the CIA. We never really get the complete picture of who this man is, but it is an interesting analysis and take on the often overlooked secret life of some of our nation's greatest heroes.
Alan Arkin certainly deserves the Oscar buzz he is getting as he brings a hard-edge comedy to the role of Siegel. He steals every single scene that he is in with his forwardness and his confident swagger. Terrio and Affleck wisely add one scene in which he and Mendez talk about their respective families. The scene adds another layer beneath the confidence and really coheres with the theme of how the superficiality behind which people hide in Hollywood correlates with that of the CIAs' double identity.
John Goodman matches Arkin's hilarity as Chambers and has one of the more memorable lines in the film. "So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot without actually doing anything?... You'll fit right in," he tells Mendez after the latter proposes his plan.
The rest of the supporting cast is equally compelling with Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, and Scoot McNairy as standouts. Cranston plays CIA agent Jack O'Donnell with assuredness and intensity. Garber brings dignity to the role of the heroic Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, and McNairy is potent as the biggest opposition Mendez faces among the six survivors. He has a particularly fascinating scene in which he plays a pivotal role in the denouement of the film. He follows that one up with an equally touching one.
The film is supplemented by brilliant cinematography form Rodrigo Prieto, solid editing and pacing from editor William Goldenberg, and a dynamic score by Alexandre Desplat.
The third time is a truly a charm for Affleck who creates a relentlessly thrilling and powerful film that will leave you exhausted, but uplifted and overjoyed to have experienced it.
Argo comes out in theaters on Friday October 13.
Other Film Reviews by David Salazar
El Limpiador Review
The Sessions Review
Trouble with the Curve Review
The Master Review
The Dark Knight Rises Review
Seeking a Friend at the End of the World Review
The Amazing Spiderman Review