Tense. Thrilling. Entertaining. Serious. Funny. Ben Affleck has a legitimate Oscar contender on his hands in the form of Argo, a movie that is not only his most accessible film but also his best suited to appeal to Oscar voters. About a so-absurd-it-has-to-be-real CIA mission to extract six American hostages from Iran, Argo is at once timely and nail-bitingly fun.
Argo takes place amidst the Iran hostage situation that took place from 1979 to 1981. As Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage, six officials escaped and took refuge in the home of a Canadian ambassador. The CIA, unable to establish a flawless plan to bring them home without seriously risking the lives of the other hostages, came up with something much more silly: they would create a fake movie production called Argo and use the project as a reason for six Canadian film crew members - the hostages - to visit Iran for a day to scope out possible filming locations. And then fly home.
Ben Affleck plays CIA operative Tony Mendez, who designed the plan, recruited real Hollywood talent to aid in the creation of the fake movie and traveled to Iran to guide the hostages to safety.
Things really are stranger in real life than they are in the movies.
While Argo clearly embellishes things at time (and, as the Canadian government can attest, diminishes Canada's role in the operation), some of the things that happen in the movie are too off-the-wall not to have happened in real life. The whole plan is so crazy, so ridiculous, that it just had to work.
Affleck, in his directorial follow-up to the taut action-thriller The Town, hits the nail on the head with Argo. The movie is serious, dramatic and edge-of-your-seat exciting, and yet it's oddly irreverent and hilarious at the same time. Somehow Affleck, working from a script by Chris Terrio, finds that perfect balance that Oscar voters just eat up, and that audiences do, too. The movie begins with the storming of the embassy - serious stuff - but then quickly switches to Mendez's strange plan, which means a venture to Hollywood where John Goodman and Alan Arkin quip about how outrageous the movie industry is and how easy it will be to convince people that they are really making a movie.
As soon as Affleck's character touches foot in Iran, however, the tension ratchets up tenfold. You sort of know things are going to work out okay, but you don't really know, and through superb pacing and editing it leaves you sweating as the mission kicks into full gear. Even in these moments, Affleck isn't afraid to let loose a zinger, or two or three, and the comedy, contrasted against the overall seriousness of the situation, for whatever reason works.
My only fault with Argo - and it's a minor one - is that Affleck shows his cards in the final minutes of the movie. SPOILER. While it's easy to accept that the events that unfold on screen are shown in considerably tighter sequence than they did in real life, he goes a little overboard as the Republican Guard chase a Swiss airliner down the tarmac. It's a minor moment, but it was the only moment that made me ask, "Really? Is that how it really happened?" The extra slice of tension was unnecessary.
I also didn't buy into why we should care about Mendez's relationship with his wife and child; the all-but-entirely neglected subplot has no bearing on the film and seems tacked on to give unnecessary closer to Mendez's journey. That's two faults, so sue me.
Argo falters just slightly in the final moments of the movie, but it is a terrific entry and an obvious candidate for Best Picture. While The Town was exciting and Gone Baby Gone was enthralling, Argo is the first movie where it feels like Ben Affleck has truly hit his stride, tackling a serious subject and transforming it into one of the most entertaining, and rewarding, experiences of the year.
Also, stay for the credits for not only a brief narration by Jimmy Carter but a comparison of the film to real photographs and video footage.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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