Written by: Chris Spicer, Special to CC2K
Fanboy Comics‘ Chris Spicer reviews Argo following the film’s red carpet premiere.
In notes he was compiling while writing his final novel, The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” I’m pretty sure Ben Affleck would disagree with him on that point.
After taking a horrific (and undeserved) beating in the press after his highly publicized relationship with Jennifer Lopez and some dodgy career choices of his own, Affleck has come roaring back in recent years, reinventing himself as a director. His first picture was Gone, Baby, Gone, a terrific first film adapted from Dennis Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro series of detective novels. It’s the fourth in a series of six books, and I’ve always wondered why nobody ever optioned the rest of the series as a television show. Next up was The Town, based on the Chuck Hogan novel Prince of Thieves. I didn’t like The Town quite as much as Gone, Baby, Gone, but it was a much bigger hit, grossing nearly $100 million in North America.
Affleck’s first two films were crime stories set in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. But, despite having a great touch with actors (both of his first two films earned acting Oscar nominations for Amy Ryan and Jeremy Renner), more than a few critics squawked that Affleck was a one-trick pony. He puts all that to rest with his third film, Argo, a sensational thriller based on true events involving the Iranian hostage crisis.
Affleck has stepped out of his perceived comfort zone and delivered a movie that deftly balances disparate locations (Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Iran) and tones. If Ocean’s 11 and The Hurt Locker had a baby, it might have turned out a lot like Argo.
Pulling double duty as he did in The Town, Affleck also stars as CIA operative Tony Mendez. Mendez specializes in extracting people from dicey situations, and his skills will be tested. In 1979 when the US embassy in Tehran was taken over by militants, six Americans escaped (literally out the back door) and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador (played by Victor Garber).
While the embassy was being overrun, key documents were being shredded. The Iranians begin to reconstruct those shredded documents and could soon learn that there were six hostages unaccounted for. The State Department wants to get them out as fast as possible.
Mendez’s boss, Jack O’Donnell (the great, great Bryan Cranston), taxes Mendez with devising a workable escape plan. While watching a Planet of the Apes movie on television with his son, Mendez hatches it; he will travel to Iran under the guise of a film production and bring the Americans home posing as a Canadian film crew.
To achieve this, Mendez must fly to Hollywood where makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) help him set up a phony science fiction picture called Argo. Mendez would then travel to Iran to scout locations for the fake movie.
The Hollywood portion is a lot of fun and takes many shots at the inherent sleaziness of the movie business. But, that’s just the windup for the movie’s big fastball, which is its fantastic third act.
The last 30 or 40 minutes of Argo are incredibly suspenseful, as Mendez must get the Americans out of Dodge before the Iranians can figure out their identities. What’s even more impressive is the amount of tension Affleck, the director, wrings out of a scenario in which history already tells us what the outcome is. That’s an impressive feat.
I’ve praised the director quite a bit here, but he’s surrounded himself with a crazy amount of talented actors. Thank God somebody finally found a great film for Bryan Crantson to be in. He’s been so overwhelmingly superb in Breaking Bad over the years, it’s kind of amazing that the film roles he’s been given aren’t so good. (I’m looking at you, Total Recall remake.) Goodman and Arkin do their usual strong work. Arkin gets to have a lot of fun with a big, showy role. Between this, Flight, and Trouble with the Curve, Goodman is having a nice fall season of movies.
The supporting cast is a role call of great character actors, some of whom show up for only a scene or two. Just look at this list: Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, Titus Wlliver, Chris Messina, Tate Donovan, Zeljko Ivanek, and Richard Kind are all here, and some of them get to sport awesome ’70s facial hair*. And, Kyle Chandler (Coach Taylor himself) shows up as Hamilton Jordan, President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff.
Affleck’s got his best screenplay to date to work with provided by Chris Terrio. This is a story with a ton of exposition that’s beautifully incorporated and allows the character development to be revealed through behavior rather than declaration. It’s also got a lot of fast, snappy, Mametian dialogue. This script is really the total package.
Let’s also give a shout-out to Sharon Seymour the production designer. Argo simply nails the look of the late ’70s and early ’80s completely. This is a totally immersive “you are there” experience. Affleck is even able to cross cut between footage shot for the movie and archival news video of the same events.
As a thriller, Argo works like gangbusters. But, I think there’s even more complexity to it. Argo makes a strong argument for the importance of movies as more than just entertainment. Yes, movies do exist to entertain us, but I’ll argue with my last breath that they can and should be so much more than just that. In this case, a movie, albeit a fake one, saved people’s lives.
*I’m actually kidding. There’s no such thing as awesome ’70s facial hair.
Chris Spicer is a Contributor for Fanboy Comics, an online conglomerate of geek media, providing its readers with daily reviews, interviews, and podcasts that span the pop culture spectrum. For more interviews, blogs, and reviews by Crhis and the FBC staff, check out the Fanboy Comics website at www.fanboycomics.net.