|WARNER BROS. PICTURES|
Ben Affleck is shown in a scene from "Argo."
Three films and three home runs for Ben Affleck the director.
From "Gone Baby Gone" (2007) to "The Town" (2010) to his latest, "Argo," he's steadily raised the stakes and widened his scope, this time leaving his native Boston behind and delivering his first true crowd-pleaser.
The meticulously crafted "Argo" seamlessly blends elements of the thriller, political drama, heist movie and comedy, with none of those disparate elements undermining any of the others. It's based on one of those real-life stories most probably would think is preposterous if it came solely from the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter.
In 1979, during the Iranian Revolution, Islamic militants storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage. Six Americans escape and find refuge at the home of Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), the Canadian ambassador to Iran. They're safe there, but for how long? The Iranians aren't letting Americans out of the country, and they have kids hard at work reassembling shredded files at the embassy. It's only a matter of time until they discover six people are missing.
The CIA brings in its top "exfiltration" expert, Tony Mendez (Affleck), as the State Department brainstorms ways to extract the six. Mendez's plan revolves around setting up a fake movie, a "Star Wars" rip-off called "Argo," looking to use the exotic locales of Iran as its alien world, giving the six Americans cover identities of a Canadian film crew scouting locations, and then all seven of them leaving the country together.
Mendez enlists Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who worked on the "Planet of the Apes" films and many more, and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help make "Argo" appear legit, complete with a fake production company, ads in Variety and a highly publicized reading of the script.
It sounds ludicrous, but the consequences of failure are deadly serious. If caught, the whole group, Mendez included, is certain to be executed as spies. However, the alternatives—having the Americans ride bicycles 300 miles to the Turkish border, having them pose as teachers when no foreign teachers are left in Iran—are even worse than Mendez's scheme.
"This is the best bad idea we have—by far," says Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), assistant deputy director of the CIA.
"Argo" is one of the most gripping thrillers in recent years, and it accomplishes that without gun battles, pyrotechnics or computer effects. This is straight-up, old-fashioned, intelligent filmmaking. It's well acted from all corners—Goodman, Arkin and Cranston, especially, are a hoot—and expertly paced and edited.
It's also a love letter to the power and appeal of the movies. Everyone—even machine-gun-toting Islamic militants holding dozens of Americans hostage—loves movies. (In a wonderful scene, several Iranian soldiers beam like children when they hear the plot of "Argo" and get a look at the storyboards.) That as much as anything is why this crazy caper even has a chance of succeeding.
After seeing its premiere last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, Roger Ebert boldly predicted "Argo" will win the Academy Award for best picture. That may have been a bit premature, but this is a movie that should inspire that kind of enthusiasm. And if this one doesn't bring home the gold for Affleck, he surely has one in his future.
Greg’s Grade: A
(Rated R for language and some violent images. 120 minutes.)