Old Hollywood Magic

'Argo' is smart, stylish, tense, and thoroughly entertaining.

Argo is Ben Affleck’s third film as director. The Town already proved that Gone Baby Gone wasn’t simply a fluke. Now with the arrival of Argo, it might be time to put him under serious consideration as one of the strongest directors we have working today. Argo is smart, stylish, tense and thoroughly entertaining. The film turns a little silly near the end as the narrative departs reality to build more tension, but by and large it all works rather wonderfully.

In 1979, the people of Iran revolted against the American-backed Shah. They stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held all of the diplomats hostage. Six managed to escape, however, and find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. While negotiations for the embassy hostages take place, the government tries to come up with a plan to rescue the six that escaped before they’re found by the revolutionary guard. CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez is brought in to consult, and faced with impossible odds, he comes up with a daring, absurd plan that involves going to Hollywood and funding a sci-fi movie that will never be made.

The movie is based on a remarkable true story that was declassified in 1997. It’s one of those stories that are just so ridiculous that it can only be true. For most of the run time, the film plays the story as a procedural, methodically working through each of the pieces, making sure that they fit. It goes deep into the details of an exfiltration operation: setting up cover identities, and building up a support system for that reality. The involvement of Hollywood in this plot gives it a lot of strange, absurd flavor. Mendez navigates the odd customs of Hollywood with as much bafflement and suspicion as he does the Iranian regime.

The film ends up separating itself from reality in the final act as it tries to build tension for the climax. It becomes a race against time as various threats that could reveal their identities barrel towards the protagonists. It all feels a little silly, even though the approach is understandable. At the very least, these scenes are expertly directed. Affleck builds a real sense of dread and momentum in the final act. Earlier in the movie, he expertly weaves disparate events, finding common threads between something like an Iranian press statement and a Hollywood event.

Ben Affleck has also grown as an actor. He exhibits more restraint, letting his eyes do most of the acting. As Mendez, he offers a weary countenance, a stance worn down by years of disillusionment. The film doesn’t get very far into the personal life of Mendez, but Affleck puts it out there all the same. Affleck has also surrounded himself with a cast of fine actors. Alan Arkin is a standout as the washed-up Hollywood producer helping him build the cover. John Goodman brings an infectious joy to all the craziness.

Argo plays a little too loose with the facts near the end, but the sheer entertainment of all that craziness is undeniable. The sequences are put together so well that it’s easy enough to forgive the film for its excesses. In the end, it would be hard to find a thriller in recent memory as smart or as satisfying as this one. The film is able to wield comedy, drama, suspense and politics with equal skill, making for a weirdly complete cinematic experience. It is old Hollywood magic through and through, with all the absurdities that comes with that idea.

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