Theatrical Review: Argo

As our story begins, it’s 1979 and the Shah of Iran has been given political asylum and angry Iranians are beginning to storm the United States embassy in Iran. Right as the embassy is being taken over, six embassy employees manage to escape to the streets of Tehran and manage to find their own asylum in the house of the Canadian ambassador to Iran. What followed of course was the hostage crisis that lasted a staggering 444 days. These six managed to make it out of Iran thanks to an incredible plan from CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez. That plan involved the idea of using a faked movie production for a science fiction film called Argo and this movie, named after the fake movie, tells that amazing story.

Argo is the third movie from director (and star) Ben Affleck, who blew me away with his previous film, The Town and he did it again with Argo. This is a terrific film and even though you already know the outcome, the ride getting there is absolutely compelling and as told by Affleck, still keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Affleck’s attention to detail is just staggering and really on display during the film’s final credits when you see comparison photos of scenes from the movie and from real life. His style here is much more in line with the style of a film made in the 70s, keeping the performances (for the most part) very low key and the action all told more through pure visuals more than anything else. One key scene, the scene in which Mendez gets this idea is absolutely amazing and as a fan of the classic Planet of the Apes films, just stuck with me.

When this moves a way from being low-key, it’s just as compelling but with total purpose and that’s more when Mendez moves into the Hollywood world to make sure that his cover story is absolutely flawless. Mendez’s first move is to get in touch with legendary Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (really well played by John Goodman), who was known to do some work for the CIA. From there, Chambers puts Mendez in touch with producer Lester Siegel, played with gusto by veteran actor Alan Arkin. Arkin’s Siegel feels absolutely right- he knows he’s in an impossible situation, but also knows it’s his duty to do what he can to help, and thanks to Arkin’s performance, that help also involves giving this movie some much appreciated lighter moments, but nothing that takes away from the gravity of the situation.

As he did in The Town, Affleck is the lead here as well, but his performance is extremely muted and generous in the extreme, with Affleck more than willing to give his co-stars their chances to shine. It’s just terrific work on Affleck’s part and it’s terrific to see this maturation that he’s made in his career. The great Bryan Cranston plays Jack O’Donnell, the CIA official who brings Mendez into play. Cranston’s terrific here, especially near the end of the film and the chemistry that he shares with Affleck is spot-on.

I’ve already mentioned both John Goodman and Alan Arkin, but also want to make note of the performance by three of the actors playing the embassy employees. Standing out for me were Tate Donovan, as the leader of the group, Scoot McNairy as a member of the group who’s very hesitant to go along with Mendez’s plan, and Clea DuVall, who was almost unrecognizable to me in her part, but felt totally authentic. Key amongst these was McNairy and again, that will become real obvious during some of the final scenes of the film. I’ve also got give Affleck Kudos for using some of the great character actors out there in some smaller background roles- guys like Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Keith Szarabajka, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall- you’ve seen these guys in all sorts of movies and TV shows in the past and their presence here just adds credibility to the whole movie. For you comic book fans out there (and believe me, I was really surprised to see this), veteran actor Michael Parks plays the storyboard artist for the fake movie Argo, and while he’s not mentioned by name in the movie, he is mentioned in the credits and that was legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby. That just blew me away even further to find out that Kirby was involved with this, even if he was unaware of the big plan.

Argo is an absolutely terrific night at the movies. Ben Affleck is showing us that he’s truly a director to watch and as an actor, he’s just getting better and better. The attention to detail is terrific, the story is totally compelling, the performances are all first rate and Ben Affleck keeps it all moving at an even clip. Argo is thrilling and I can’t wait to see what Affleck does for his next directorial effort. Highly, highly recommended!