Warner Bros. Pictures, GK Studios, 2012
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston
The first 15 minutes of, “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s latest film, depict a militant mob of Iranian extremists storming the gates of the United States embassy in Tehran. The scenes build with explosive intensity: embassy workers burning and shredding sensitive documents in a furious race against time, windows shattering and doors breaking down as the mob closes in, response crews shooting smoke grenades into the unruly masses in an attempt to neutralize the situation. Affleck stages the set-piece with the same breathless pace and meticulous attention to detail that marked the opening heist in his 2010 thriller “The Town,” effortlessly providing a hook for a historical film that never once crosses into textbook-reciting territory. That the scenes manage to build such riveting action is rendered even more impressive by the fact that the film’s star and major supporting players don’t even enter the picture until later. This introduction is all about the set-up: about the rising tension in Iran, about the hostage situation within the embassy and, most notably, about the six hostages that sneak out a back exit and disappear.
When it reaches the CIA that the six escapees are hiding out with a friendly Canadian ambassador (a reliably solid Victor Garber), extraction specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) and his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) hatch a rescue mission revolving around a fake science fiction film. With the help of a CIA-connected make-up artist (John Goodman) and a charismatic Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin), Mendez builds an elaborate cover scheme around a bogus science fiction epic (the titular “Argo”) and an even-more bogus “location scouting trip.” The idea is that the six in-limbo ambassadors will pose as Mendez’s (Canadian) film crew as he scouts Iranian locales for possible film settings. After they have all played the charade for a few days, they will get on an airplane, fly back to the United States and be home free: needless to say, things don’t play out quite so simply.
Affleck, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter for “Good Will Hunting” has been on somewhat of a role lately, kicking off his directorial career with a pair of Boston-centered crime dramas (“Gone Baby Gone” and the aforementioned “The Town”) that gained both critical acclaim and audience approval. But “Argo” branches away from Affleck’s “Southie” stomping grounds, following its globe-trotting narrative and vast ensemble cast with the sweep of classic thrillers. Affleck drives the production with a craftsman’s eye for detail, adopting authentic costumes and a grainy, 70s-esque cinematography technique that recalls the work of all-time-great directors like Frances Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski and Sydney Pollack. He also takes the lead role, bringing the same kind of internalized conflict, drive and intensity that marked his leading turn in “The Town.” It’s not a showy performance, but it is a subtle and nuanced one, a showcase of an actor/director who, even when he casts himself as the hero, is still willing to let his supporting cast steal the show. It was that directorial mentality that helped net Jeremy Renner a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2010 (also for “The Town”) and part of the reason that “Argo” is receiving such widespread critical acclaim.
Affleck’s trend of drawing terrific performances from his actors continues here, with a slate of known and unknown commodities coalescing to form the year’s strongest ensemble. The noisiest and showiest role goes to Oscar winner Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine), who embodies loud-mouthed, profane and hilarious Hollywood producer Lester Siegel with aplomb (“If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit!” he exclaims early on), but equally fun is John Goodman, channeling his career-best work from the cult classic “The Big Lebowski” into the role of celebrated make-up artist John Chambers. The two get to spend most of their screen-time playing off one another and their onscreen relationship is one of the film’s greatest strengths, a gleeful, endlessly rewarding storyline that serves as a perfect foil to the tense central plot.
But while Arkin is getting the majority of the Oscar buzz, the best-in-show here is Bryan Cranston, whose commanding passion and emotional energy anchor the film’s third act. Those who have seen Cranston light up the small screen in AMC’s “Breaking Bad” (a show for which he won three-consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards) know that he is one of the best actors working today and will doubtlessly enjoy watching him play a role more in the “good guy” corner here. And while Arkin and Goodman get the lion’s share of the film’s one-liners, Cranston gets arguably the definitive one (“This is the best bad idea we’ve got,” he dryly remarks to a superior in the State Department). The rest of the cast is filled out by lesser-known talents, actors and actresses who step into the roles of the ambassadors and bring appropriate gravity, fear and restlessness to their situation…all as the walls begin to close in. Each scene the six of them share with Affleck feels entirely organic.
As far as Oscar talk is concerned, with a 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a tremendously consistent box office performance, “Argo” is currently the Best Picture frontrunner, and it’s not at all hard to figure out why. Not only is the film strong across all filmmaking benchmarks (from acting, to directing, to craft categories like Cinematography and Costume Design), it also offers the same kind of tribute to Hollywood that made “The Artist” such an unstoppable force last year. The way the film lovingly (and often, hilariously) portrays the moviemaking process is nothing short of infectious, injecting the film’s serious subject matter with a lighthearted tilt, and making it difficult to envision anything resonating more consistently with Academy audiences this year. Will “Argo” win Best Picture? And will the guy who starred in such critical and commercial disasters as “Gigli” and “Surviving Christmas” walk away from the 85th annual Academy Awards with a Best Director Oscar in hand? Only time will tell, and a lot of things could certainly change between now and the Feb. 25 ceremony, but as of right now, both of those things seem exceedingly likely. I, for one, could hardly be more pleased.