‘Argo’ is a serious Oscar contender

Ben Affleck and Bryan Cranston in ‘Argo’ — Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Ben Affleck is a director to appreciate and cherish. His movies, including The Town and Gone Baby Gone, are thoughtful thrillers that utilize effective acting, clever writing and a pitch-pefect sense of cinematic pacing. Argo, his latest and best effort, is an espionage nail-biter that tells the behind-the-scenes story of the Iranian hostage affair. The film is a pulsating drama that takes on a new level of profundity in these difficult times between the United States and Iran. It’s a worthy history lesson, and one that should find gold on Oscar night.

Affleck pulls double duty. He sits in the director’s chair and plays the role of Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who’s an expert in evacuating privileged personnel from difficult situations. The odds are stacked against Mendez. It’s 1980, and the Americans and Canadians need to come together and safely free a group of embassy workers from Tehran, the capital of Iran. The events are based on a real story.

The best cover turns out to be Hollywood itself. Mendez helps create a fake “film project” called Argo, a science-fiction thriller that will supposedly be filmed in Iran. He brings Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a director, and John Chambers (John Goodman), a makeup artist, into the fold to sell the project to Tinseltown and the press. Mendez’s boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), has his doubts, but he’s willing to let the expert conduct his expert work.

The Americans are living in the Canadian embassy, but their secrecy is quickly evaporating. They need safe refuge, and if the Iranians in the street find out about their presence, the consequences could be fatal. Mendez plans to have them portray the fake movie’s film crew, but the plan has many obstacles.

From left, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bisha, Tate Donovan, Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall in ‘Argo’ — Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Hovering above the entire story are the strained relations between the United States and Iran, a predicament that continues in 2012.

Affleck acts well, but he’s a far better director. He’s able to bring all of these elements together into a 120-minute thriller that never feels like a sanitized version of history.

Does he and screenwriter Chris Terrio take liberties with the story? That’s up to the historians to decide. It’s hard to believe that all of these incidents took place concurrently; the timing may be a direct result of Hollywood’s need for action and catharsis. But there’s no denying the intrinsic drama and intensity of the hostage situation.

The one area (and it’s very slight) where Argo trips up is the balance between comedy and seriousness. Goodman and Arkin certainly enliven the cast with their Hollywood one-liners, but when placed side by side with the drama in Tehran, it seems off-kilter. Admittedly, that’s the precise nature of Mendez’s plan: The foolishness of Hollywood is needed to save a CIA covert mission. But the script is never able to balance the two together. Wag the Dog, a great movie starring Dustin Hoffman, sided almost exclusively with comedy. Argo sides mostly with drama, but its comedic bits seem a bit off.

The movie’s ensemble acting, including the talents of Tate Donovan, Victor Garber and Clea DuVall, is exquisite (also look for the cameo from Adrienne Barbeau). This is an important story given a first-rate production. Argo is one of the best films of the year, and Affleck is one our best directors.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Argo

  • 2012

  • Directed by Ben Affleck

  • Written by Chris Torrio

  • Starring Affleck, Clea DuVall, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin

  • Running time: 120 minutes

  • Rated R for language and some violent images

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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