Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Too often in biopics are the main subjects drawn in single note terms. The protagonist is perfect, or close to it and nothing he does is wrong. Lincoln successfully separates itself from that unfortunate group. Instead, Lincoln shows a president who succeeds almost always on the political spectrum, but can’t always win his battles at home. The movie beautiful portrays this powerful man in all his glory, without one stepping into the realms of tribute.

Despite the film’s title, the previews showed that the film wouldn’t cover Lincoln’s entire life, but just the Civil War. The Civil War only physically figures into a handful of scenes in the film, with just one legitimate battle scene in the movie, the opening shots. On top of that, the film actually only covers the last year-and-a-half of the war. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s acclaimed biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the scope of the film is well chosen in its limitation and event choice.

That does not mean that the film is flawless, by any means. In an effort to establish the majority of its characters, the film has a slow first quarter. This first quarter could have used some better performances from a few parties, parties that come across well later on but couldn’t handle the dirty work of establishing their characters in an interesting way. After this, the film picks up speed, making for a surprisingly exciting, witty, incredibly involving last three-quarters of film.

As I sort of hinted above, Tony Kushner’s script is really great but not truly fantastic. Those early moments I mentioned earlier take away from what comes later on, which is an absolutely incredible script. His script is dramatic and emotion while simultaneously witty. Despite the slow start, the start does effectively establish his characters for what turns into an involving politics-saturated movie that oftentimes borders on political thriller. He writes his characters well, almost never putting Lincoln on a godlike pedestal and wonderfully writing Mary Todd Lincoln’s breakdowns to show her as the loving, supportive woman full of humanity she was initially as well as the woman who hired seers and gypsies and for whose sanity Lincoln feared deeply after the death of the couple’s second-youngest son, Willie. The film takes some historical liberties, but nothing so egregious as to destroy the movie’s reputability in the name of drama. I’m an American history buff, though no expert, especially not on the Civil War, but I found no real historical inaccuracies to speak of. Kushner’s script suffers early on, a fact I attribute in equal portion to Kushner as to some of the acting parties involved.

In the technical departments, the film thrives. John Williams’ score is singularly creative, a comment I almost never have about one of his scores. His piano-based theme is fantastic and, in comparison to most of his other scores, uniquely quiet, allowing the film to take precedence. Too often his scores have been too loud and have taken away too much from the films they’ve been in. I know I’ve already said this, but I can’t stress it enough: This score is refreshingly suppressed and fabulously creative, two things that I haven’t said about a John Williams’ score since the first Harry Potter, and that I haven’t been absolutely secure in since Saving Private Ryan. I'm adding this in early February: after listening to the score several times since I saw the film, I am continuously elated by how brilliantly John Williams takes several of his cues musically from Aaron Copland (my favorite American classical composer and probably in my top 5 overall) and molds them into his own. The two more upbeat "Western"-themed pieces are brilliantly inspired by Rodeo and I cannot love them enough.

The production design is superb, as is the costume design. What really steals the show, however, is the makeup, which absolutely transforms a few of the actors, and Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography is gorgeous. Each and every shot is spellbinding. Even the more personal, interior shots take your breath away.

Steven Spielberg’s direction is great and very personal, much in the same way that Schindler’s List and Catch Me If You Can Are, for reasons all their own, though Schindler’s reasons for being so personal seem to stem from similar ones to Lincoln’s.

The acting is superb, led, of course, by Daniel Day-Lewis’s (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood, In the Name of the Father, Gangs of New York) monumental performance. Day-Lewis is, by my reckoning, the best actor today doing serious acting, and arguably the best alive not named Nicholson, Pacino, De Niro, or Duvall. He has given around 10-15 lead performances in his career and 4 of them have been nominated for Best Actor and 2 have won. As Abraham Lincoln, Day-Lewis, a method actor who has received little criticism in his career, most of which has been because he is over the top in his character portrayals, gives an incredibly restrained performance here. He creates an imposing and powerful, yet insular, shy, and respectful man. His performance is quiet, something that makes it resonate all the more. His scenes with his family members are very strong and his scenes with his political allies and foes are perfection embodied. He deserves to win his third Best Actor award, and I think it will be a major injustice if he does not win. He never wastes a scene, over even a moment within a scene. His scenes with Sally Field are incredibly poignant, especially as he shows the fear he has for her mental well-being and the conflicting opinions he has about how to deal with it.

Sally Field (Norma Rae, Brothers and Sisters), as Mary Todd Lincoln, is also quite good. She effectively brings to life the mental inquietude that Mary faced after the death of Willie without ever going over the edge or creating a caricature of her. Though not nearly as good as her Oscar-winning performance in Norma Rae, as Mrs. Lincoln, she is Oscar-nomination-worthy, though not win-worthy.

As Radical Republican wing leader Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive, No Country for Old Men, JFK) gives a fabulous scene-stealing performance. He is absolutely hysterical. His delivery is perfect and his passionate speeches are incredibly powerful. Most importantly, however, is his great depiction of the fact that, despite his passionate political views, he’s willing to say whatever is necessary to achieve his ends.

The list of notable actors portraying other important political figures is long, and the performances vary in flavor and effectiveness. The best performances by such people come from David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck.) as Secretary of State William Seward, who is impassioned, often clashing with Lincoln’s opinions, but always remaining close friends, and Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) as Representative Fernando Wood in an appropriately vindictive performance. Gloria Reuben (ER) is also quite good emotionally as Mrs. Lincoln’s housemaid, Elizabeth Keckley.

The trio of operative called in by Strathairn is entertaining. James Spader (The Practice, Boston Legal), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene), and Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) are all effective as William N. Bilbo, Robert Latham, and Richard Schell, respectively. Spader, especially, is quite entertaining and provides excellent comedic outings.

Hal Holbrook (All the President’s Men, Into the Wild) is, as usual, good as Francis Preston Blair and Walton Goggins (The Shield, Justified) is satisfactory as Congressman Wells A. Hutchins.

Other players such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brick, The Dark Knight Rises, (500) Days of Summer), David Costabile (Suits, Solitary Man), Gulliver McGrath (Dark Shadows), Jackie Earle Haley (Breaking Away, Little Children), Jared Harris (Mad Men, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), and S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order) are all good as Robert Todd Lincoln, James Ashley, Tad Lincoln, Alexander H. Stephens, Ulysses S. Grant, and Lydia Smith

Perhaps the most important and impressive part about the movie is the inclusion of African-Americans in the plot. The presence of African-American infantrymen at the beginning hints that this won’t be a film about the righteous white populace of the north defeating the whites of the south, thereby freeing the lowly black race in unpaid servitude. Instead, these black soldiers promise a film that gives as much credit to blacks as it possibly can historically. The rest of the film follows suit magnificently. There’s one line in this film uttered by a Democratic representative about how there’s no possible way that blacks will ever be congressmen, the irony being that the first African-American congressman were two senators from Mississippi, Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, both of whom came to office in the 1870s almost immediately after Reconstruction. (Bruce was even elected.) This just makes the usage of African-Americans all the more powerful.

The film shows spectacularly well the huge obstacles that impeded the path to equality, the ironclad position, the unwavering personalities, the political factions and maneuvering. It wonderfully shows how difficult it was for Lincoln and his political allies to achieve their goals. The film, especially in its second half, is amazing in its ability to transform potentially boring subject matter, lawmaking, into one of the best political thrillers I’ve ever seen. Despite this masterful three-quarters of film, the beginning   is still slow and plodding and sometimes awkward. ★★★★½ out of ★★★★★.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Pleasantly surprising is how I would describe the Stephen Chbosky directed, Stephen Chbosky-adapted version of Stephen Chbosky’s coming of age book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I’ve never read the novel, but the quality of the movie speaks for itself, I think.

Despite being pleasantly surprised, I still found some issues with the film, mainly with small, ten to fifteen second increments of lines mainly during the beginning of the movie. They just didn’t fit. Logan Lerman’s (Percy Jackson) flashback sequences to himself as a small child with his Aunt Helen, played by Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures, Up in the Air), are frustrating at best. Lynskey, who gave her career best performance in her teens and has now been relegated to the realms of small parts in decent-to-big-name movies, is given some of the cheesiest lines to read. She does her best, but the lines are just too bad. A few other bad lines are peppered throughout the screenplay, and they stick out like sore thumbs. The screenplay’s saving graces are twofold. Firstly, those bad lines tend to come toward the first half of the film, with only Aunt Helen’s lines continuing, and even then at a reduced rate. Secondly, the scenes at the very end of the film, where Logan Lerman is breaking down, are incredibly well written. I don’t usually cry in movies, but I teared up. That’s how powerful they are.

This power brings us to another potential problem the movie poses for itself that it then handily suppresses: the large amount of voice-overs. I don’t particularly care for voice-overs and they’re often my least favorite part of movies when they are there. Fortunately, Lerman handles the potential pitfall wonderfully. He speaks every one with conviction and genuine emotion.

Chbosky’s direction and the technical elements of the film are unremarkable, but certainly not bad. The music, largely song-based, is wonderfully chosen and implemented. Honestly, the more technical aspects don’t really matter because the movie, as I’ve already hinted, is made great by its performances, especially its 3 leads.

As Charlie, the lead character, Logan Lerman is a revelation. From the start, he endows Charlie with a complex combination of a sort of shy likeability and darkness that remains unrevealed until the end of the film. He effectively pulls viewers of all ages into the story, connecting with them on at least one level or another. He is simultaneously understandable and mysterious. His periodic, but increasingly frequent emotional breakdowns, almost always caused by his flashbacks, are fantastically done. His rather lengthy one at the end of the film is heartbreaking and astonishingly well done and he even handles his more romantic scenes well, showing both his desires and insecurities quite well. His eventual ending is not entirely worry free, but his performance is great and I feel his possibilities as an actor are infinite.

Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin) gives a scene-stealing performance as Patrick, the older, gay friend Charlie makes. Miller is brilliant at making his character both funny and human. Early on, he’s more in the movie for comedic relief, but his character gradually gains depth, until, by the end of the film, he is almost as complex as Charlie. Even when he’s being almost exclusively funny in his early scenes, Miller still finds a way to show the inner pain and frustration he keeps bottled up.

I would guess that the majority of people who went to and will go to see this movie who didn’t read the novel did/will do so because of Emma Watson, either because she’s gorgeous or because they want the see how her career post-Potter is turning out or both (that’s my camp). Emma does more than one thing exceedingly well in her performance as the initially seemingly simple, but later quite complex character of Sam. Sam is Patrick’s step-sister, and they are closer than pretty much any actual brother and sister I’ve ever seen. Watson was always projected to be the most talented of the three lead Potter characters, and she shows why here. She initially portrays Sam as an innocent girl, but all the time she shows that there’s so much more to her under the surface. Later on, we find out her problem, but a brand new kind of hurt and doubt shows up in her performance, and that doesn’t disappear until we then find out those particular issues in her life. She is great and I look forward to her further post-Potter ventures. As for her American accent, she fluctuates a bit too much in the early going, accidentally shifting into an awkward quasi-British accent for split-seconds during the first few minutes she’s on-screen, but her accent from then on is actually stellar. With the exception of only a handful of instances, her accent is great and an uneducated viewer would think she was an American.

Each one of these three these lead characters has a sort of mask, a method through which to hide the traumatic experiences and issues they’ve already faced in their young lives. Despite these masks, each actor finds a way to show their vulnerability in a believable, effective, and convincing way.

Even the smaller parts in the movies are good. Mae Whitman (Arrested Development, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Parenthood) is good as another new friend of Charlie’s, Mary Elizabeth. Paul Rudd (Friends, Our Idiot Brother, Knocked Up) is warm and welcoming as Mr. Anderson, and Kate Walsh (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice) and Dylan McDermott (The Practice, American Horror Story) are effective and pretty convincing as Charlie’s parents. Joan Cusack (Broadcast News, Working Girl, In & Out, Toy Story 2 & 3) has what essentially amounts to little more than an extended cameo as Dr. Burton, but she makes the most of it. Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries) is also fine as Charlie’s sister, Candace.

Overall, the film is a bold, fresh new entry into the teenage film genre, complementing The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller quite well. Its take on the emotional issues as well as those with self-confidence and acceptance in high school are unfortunately spot on, and it deals with the difficult issues powerfully and gracefully. I liked this film a lot. Especially when considering how much I was expecting a mediocre-to-good film at best. Though not perfect or even nearly so, Perks is still very enjoyable, extremely funny, quite well acted, more often than not powerfully written, sometimes immensely poignant, and innately hopeful in its outlook on life. It’s a breath of fresh air. ★★★★ out of ★★★★★.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Dr. No. From Russia with Love. Goldfinger. Thunderball. You Only Live Twice. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Diamonds Are Forever. The Spy Who Loved Me. GoldenEye. Casino Royale. Skyfall? That was my question going into the midnight IMAX premier of Eon’s 24th, and latest, film, and their 23rd Bond picture: Will Skyfall measure up to the standards  set by the 10 films listed before it, most of which are generally accepted as the best Bonds ever? My answer upon leaving the film is undoubtedly yes, but more than just because it’s a great movie. Up until Pierce Brosnan took to the screen in GoldenEye in 1995, there really was no chronology to what happened in the films; they were all separate instances of James Bond, Agent 007, drinking martinis, seducing gorgeous women, and saving Britain and often the world from the terrible forces that be. GoldenEye quite successfully established a solid, time-based Bond timeline, which it then proceeded to destroy it with 3 dreadful movies. When Daniel Craig took over the part, Casino Royale established at least a mini-storyline that was continued in Quantum of Solace. Skyfall pulls an entirely brand new card and starts way back at the very beginning, actually before the very beginning, showing events that take place before Dr. No, or any of the other Bonds for that matter, ever take place.

The first thing I think about when I think about a Bond film, other than the recurring plot points (Bond, villain(s), girl(s), car(s)), is its credit sequence and song. In this age of CGI, a bad opening credits sequence is admittedly harder to make than a good one. Even in the days of bad movies in 80s and late 90s, the opening credits rarely failed to entertain or at least be decent. In recent memory, both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace had fantastic opening credits sequences, even though their songs were mediocre at absolute best, and that’s being generous. In Skyfall, we are blessed with an absolutely fantastic opening credits along with one of the best Bond songs ever, an Adele-performed and partially Adele-written masterpiece that seamlessly incorporates original Monty Norman and John Barry themes while still remaining completely original. The song is at worst top 10 Bond songs of all time material and maybe even top 5 (both lists are so difficult to break into).

The plotting of Skyfall is storytelling near its finest. Its screenplay, though not exactly fast-paced at the beginning (though what else can you expect from John Logan), never falters in its ability to pull you in. The cold opening is a generous mix of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, combining hand-to-hand action with cars and trains going fast. The trailers have made the initial situation of the movie pretty clear: a hard drive with the names of all of the NATO agents imbedded in terrorist organizations around the globe has been stolen and Craig gets shot by Naomie Harris, his partner field operative for the retrieval operation, while fighting some guy on top of a train. He’s assumed dead (so that he gets chances to say cool things about resurrection and enjoying death later on). Honestly those plot points only get the ball rolling. The rest of the film wonderfully links together Connery’s suave Bond and Dalton’s ultra-serious Bond, something that I feel Craig has been doing brilliantly since the start.

Thomas Newman’s score is very good and so is Stuart and Kate Baird’s editing, especially of the action sequences, but Roger Deakins’s cinematography really steals the show. His inventive scene-shooting methods are always great and often magnificent, but what else would you expect from Deakins, the greatest living cinematographer.

The film’s plot taking place before any of the others opens up an immense realm of references, both spoken and seen, and they are incredibly well and efficiently utilized. They are never overused and only ever add to the film’s effectiveness, especially for the even mildly well-versed Bond viewer.

Sam Mendes’s direction is magnificently good. His better known works are actor-oriented with little to no action or effects. Even this Bond does not feel as action-filled as Quantum of Solace, but in reality it just might be. That’s what’s so impressive. Mendes creates a brilliant film containing the action Bond we all know and love, while simultaneously and effortlessly creating the most human Bond film I have ever seen. Mendes is, in my opinion, similar to Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols, and Woody Allen in his ability to get great performances from his actors, an actor’s director, if you will (though less talented than probably all 3). In Skyfall, Mendes gets a plethora of fabulous, varied performances across the board.

To begin with, of course, Daniel Craig is James Bond. I remember the uproar from fans when he was declared Brosnan’s successor. Then he handily silenced all of them with his astonishingly great performance in Casino Royale and his only slightly less wonderful turn in Quantum of Solace. I’ve always thought Daniel Craig to be an immensely underrated actor His towering performance in Skyfall, though, puts both of those to shame. His third outing as the most famous spy in the world is powerfully emotional, fabulously witty, and effortlessly awesome. His facial reactions to different situations are fabulously executed and often devastatingly funny. At the same time, his performance is understated, as the majority of his performances in his career have been, and therein lies his success. He has this innate ability to just look at you with a straight face and have you sense his troubled past, his emotional vulnerability, the chinks in his armor, and yet still be able to switch immediately to that Bond persona we all know so well, the untouchable, suave, womanizing spy.

As the film’s villain, Raoul Silva, Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) gives another memorable, fantastic well-done and fantastically entertaining villainous performance. Silva’s sexuality is certain early on when he first appears, but Bardem chooses not to let that fact determine the shape of his performance. That scene with Bond is perhaps my favorite in the film just because of how well the two play off of each other and the awkward situation unfolding. Bardem’s characterization is certainly flamboyant, but never overly so. He’s on a revenge vendetta, but he never lets that run his performance entirely. He conveys a deep-rooted hatred quite well. In the beginning, his menace is almost funny in its seeming playfulness, but his performance, despite making me chuckle, still managed to frighten me at the same time. Bardem’s creation is the best Bond villain since, well, a really long time. Not since Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin and Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga has a Bond villain been so memorable, and not since Gert Fröbe’s Auric Goldfinger has a Bond villain been so memorable in an actually good film with other memorable elements. Silva is certainly the most menacing Bond villain ever, and the most convincing in the desires and aims (i.e. His main goal is not to blow up the world just because it sounds like a cool idea. He's also now trying to start an underwater city or a moon colony after he ends humankind). He’s easily top 10 and maybe even top 5 as just a Bond villain overall. His performance is awe-inspiring and would definitely be deserving of an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Judi Dench, reprising her role as M for the 7th time, gives her most complex Bond performance. This is, of course, aided by the screenplay, which elevates M to a brand new level of importance, centering a good portion of the events around her rather than just having her as a woman with an earpiece giving out orders. With this increased importance, she shows off why she’s considered one of the greatest actresses alive and ever (and why she has 6 Oscar nominations), endowing M with a complex vulnerability.

One of the things that makes the film so good is its ability to make you not notice certain things. For me, the biggest one of these things was the lack of a real Bond girl. Naomie Harris’s Eve provides some tantalizing opportunities, but none of them ever materialize. She remains a sidekick more than a lover. The only categorically Bond girl is Bérénice Lim Marlohe’s Sévérine. Marlohe does surprisingly well with her character, making her enigmatic and seductive, while also showing the intense fear she feels, something she does especially well in her scene with Bond as the casino bar. Whereas many of the Bond girls are either poorly written with shallow backgrounds or are portrayed by beautiful, but dreadfully bad actresses or both, Marlohe’s Sévérine, despite her short screentime, is fleshed out and well-acted.

Ralph Fiennes is one of my favorite actors because he never seems like he’s acting and he never seems like he’s becoming the character, and yet he almost always gives fantastic, varied performances. As Gareth Mallory, Fiennes effectively portrays the authoritative and overpowering but also the sometimes devious nature of his character.

Albert Finney gives a short yet fantastic performance as the warm and feeling Kincade. He is a pleasantly gruff fellow with a heart of gold, and Finney plays him perfectly. The part is small and was never really all that complex, but Finney does wonders with it, adding large amounts of importance to the character seemingly just by being there.

As Bill Tanner and Q, Rory Kinnear and Ben Whishaw are just fine, though their parts never really require much of them, although Whishaw’s delivery of a line poking fun at the sometimes absurd gadgets of the pre-Craig era is well-delivered. Helen McCrory (HP and the Half-Blood Prince and HP and the Deathly Hallows) is also appropriately vindictive as Clair Dowar, a Member of Parliament.

The cars are great, but not spectacular. As this is set before everything else, there’s no sexy Bond car to begin the movie. But this allows a tip of the cap later on to some of the great franchise films. There’s Eve’s Land Rover in the cold opening and M’s Jaguar XJ (at least I think it’s an XJ though it could be an XF). There’s some motorcycles, a short portion with an Audi R8 (I believe), and a surprise that would my mentioning would ruin.

The locations are surprisingly not exotic. The bulk of the film takes place in the United Kingdom. The cold opening is in Turkey and a few scenes take place in Shanghai and on an uninhabited island off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan, but China isn’t the exotic ideal it was 40 years ago. There are no Caribbean islands, no Eastern European landscapes to admire. And yet it feels so exotic and beautiful.

Unfortunately, Skyfall’s Oscar chances look pretty slim. The stigma surrounding franchise films and genre films are immensely unfortunate, and not just for the Bond movies. Skyfall deserves a Best Picture and possibly a Best Director nomination, but it likely won’t get either one. Given how unimpressed I was with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master, Daniel Craig is currently contending for a spot on my personal Best Actor nomination list, but there’s no prayer he’ll make it onto the Academy’s. Javier Bardem’s stellar turn is a lock for my nominations, but he faces an uphill battle for the actual Oscars, one that is almost decidedly unwinnable. Albert Finney’s performance is the surprise of the film, and I could have seen him receiving the veteran nomination if not for Alan Arkin in Argo and Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln. Judi Dench’s performance is Best Supporting Actress nomination-worthy, but there’s no chance in hell that she’ll ever get it. Alas, the only nominations I foresee for the film are technical. Unless the Academy deems Adele’s title song ineligible (because it contains one riff taken from Barry’s original theme), the song is an almost sure lock for a nomination, or as much of a lock as you can possible have in that damned unpredictable category. I keep trying to think of other places it’s a lock for a nomination, but I just can’t. Deakins’s cinematography is fabulous and is absolutely deserving of a nomination, but considering he holds the record for most nominations without a win by a living person, and considering the stigma around Bond movies, I just don’t see him getting one. The Bairds’ editing might get some recognition, especially because of the stellar action sequences, but I rather doubt it. Maybe Sound Editing or Sound Mixing or both. One thing’s for certain, however, Skyfall won’t receive nearly as much awards credit as it should.

In short, Skyfall is wonderful. I have seen 14 or the 24 Bond flicks, and I can safely say this is definitely top 10, even top 5, even of those 24 (I haven’t seen things like Moonraker, Octopussy, etc.). Without seeing all of the Bonds, including From Russia with Love and Dr. No, Skyfall is my pick for the best Bond film I’ve ever seen, and yes, even better than Goldfinger and Thunderball. Despite my love and respect for Sean Connery and everything he did in creating the patently Bond persona. Craig is swiftly becoming the best Bond in my opinion (they are the only 2 really in competition). I haven’t decided yet whether Skyfall is the best film I’ve seen yet this year or just my favorite, but be sure that it is indeed my absolute favorite. Casino Royale gave me high hopes for the future of Bond and Quantum of Solace only slightly dampened them. But Skyfall has completely renewed by faith and more. Needless to say, I can’t wait for Bond 24 and Bond 25 in 2014 and 2016. ★★★★★ out of ★★★★★.


Argo begins with a series of comic strips in black-and-white fleshed-out with color a few seconds after they hit the screen, each of them telling a small piece in the split-second history lesson that cues the 2 hours of political thriller that is set to unfold. The sequence is one of the best and most inventive openings I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen quite a few. The combination of history and comics is a difficult one to walk, but the sequence faces the challenge bravely and triumphantly, and the rest of the film follows suit.

I went to Argo expecting a very good film. After all, Ben Affleck the director has yet to fail me. The Town (2010) was possibly the most exciting film of that year, and despite its obvious and clichéd plot-points, Ben Affleck’s superb direction managed to hide the cliché almost every time. After that, I watched his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007), starring his brother Casey (The Assassination of Jesse James), and was once again taken and surprised by his great directorial prowess, especially when I’ve never been incredibly taken with his acting skills. Ben Affleck grew up in Boston, so his knowledge of the city played a monstrous role in Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Argo never once has a scene in Boston, extending its northeastern roots only so far as to Langley and the White House, so I was somewhat unsure as to how great the film would be.

Still, I thought I knew exactly what I was going to get: a wonderfully entertaining, edge of my seat thriller featuring very good direction and a plethora of big Hollywood names. I got more than I paid for.

The film, as I hope comes as no surprise, is about the successful attempt to rescue six employees of the American embassy in Tehran, Iran after they escape through the back door and take up residence in the Canadian ambassador’s basement, which is really more of a bomb shelter. And I almost forgot: Ben Affleck saves them by pretending like he’s a Canadian film director meeting the rest of his film crew, the six hostages, to do some exotic location scouting. Revealing this much really says absolutely nothing about the movie, and that is where Argo starts succeeding.

Argo succeeds on so many levels it’s difficult to know where to begin. Technically speaking, the film is a masterpiece. Its art direction, set design, cinematography, and costume design are all top-notch, and William Goldenberg’s film editing 100% deserves to win the Oscar in February. If not for some other films yet to be released, I’d automatically give it production design too because its sets and scene staging are so historically accurate and exact it’s scary. It’s just that great. And if the film’s historical accuracy is ever in doubt, the beginning of the end credits obliterate all doubt, placing pictures taken during the beginning of the hostage crisis right next to stills from the actual film to highlight the astonishing near-reproduction of these famous shots from history.

Enough technicalities for right now, though. Chris Terrio’s script, based on two sources, a book by the orchestrator of the rescue, Tony Mendez, and an article from Wired by Joshuah Bearman, is masterful, combining equally generous amounts of wit and suspense and juxtaposing them to create one of the oddest, but most successful political thriller scripts ever. The wit stays almost entirely in the states, specifically in Hollywood, while the suspense remains almost entirely sequestered in Washington and Tehran. Nevertheless, the two seem to run together, creating an interestingly funny, beautiful tone for a film that otherwise would have been an ordinary, albeit exciting, thriller, and most likely deserves a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination.

Affleck’s direction, as I hinted earlier, is nothing short of spectacular and deserves a Best Director nomination. His ability to squelch cliché and accentuate everything else good about his film is remarkable, and his movie soars accordingly. Perhaps the best example of his deft direction lies in his treatment of the Iranian revolutionaries throughout the film. The script gives the Iranians no redeeming qualities. Even when they allow the Americans to board their plane home, they only do so after a receiving a bribe of sorts. Nonetheless, Affleck never fails to minimize the ill effects the script may have caused, painting the Iranians in an effectively indifferent light, never once subjugating their personal beliefs or questioning the reasons for their actions like Westerns in the 1940s and 1950s did unfortunatelyoften to Native Americans. The ending of the film is unsurprising and the method of its arrival is likewise foreseeable, but Affleck’s direction completely succeeds, never allowing the predictable ending to lose any of its significance and emotional clout. The final scenes featuring the bulk of the ensemble could have been the stuff of deplorably mundane and vomitously sentimental Disney sports movie “We Won the Championship” movie-ending scenes, but instead the final scenes are incredibly poignant, providing an impressively effective denouement before the Canadians get the credit.

The supporting acting is likewise superb and overall the acting probably deserves to win the SAG for Best Ensemble, though I don’t think I would go so far as to nominate anybody foran individual acting Oscar. As for Affleck’s lead performance, well, I have quite a bit to say about that later.

Perhaps the most amazing piece characteristic about the supporting acting in Argo may not be the acting itself, but how spectacular the casting of the main parts was. The photo comparison at the beginning of the end credits I mentioned earlier also focuses on the astounding physical, especially facial, similarities shared between the actors and the people they portrayed. More importantly, though, are the immensely powerful, yet appropriately indistinguishable performances given by the six hostages, the solid work from Affleck’s co-workers at the CIA, and the scene-stealing performances from the Hollywood bigwigs.

The six hostages, played by Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé, and Christopher Denham, form an absolutely spectacular ensemble, creating monumentally powerful, genuine evocations of fear and uncertainty. Their combined reactions to a handful of the situations they find themselves in provide the most emotionally powerful scenes in the entire film.

Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine), as film producer Lester Siegel, and John Goodman (Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski), as Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers, provide some absolutely hilarious scenes and watching these two seasoned film veterans work their magic is truly special. There comedic timing is perfect and their chemistry effortless, with Arkin especially providing a clinic on how to deadpan and on how to play up a joke, both to hysterical effect. Their scenes are priceless, especially near the end when they’re attempting to get back to the producer’s office in the studio after dinner but can’t because somebody’s shooting a ridiculous-looking action movie right where they’re trying to walk.

The more I see of him, the more and more I find myself loving Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Drive). His work in Breaking Bad as an increasingly violent man is incredibly powerful, but his portrayals of physically inhibited, but deeply kind and caring men (Drive) and plain, old, everyday guys (right here), even though his normal guy does work for the CIA, are equally fabulous. As Affleck’s co-worker, Jack O’Donnell, he subtly exudes a sense of simultaneous quiet confidence in his own abilities and position and watchful dread of the actions of his superiors and what their next brainless action may be. He knows the ropes and what his higher-ups will say and do all too well, and he doesn’t pay their commands and opinions too much credence. He and Affleck share great chemistry in their scenes together and Cranston easily makes up for whatever lack of acting skill Affleck may be plagued by, though these scenes actually tend to be some of Affleck’s best even without Cranston’s help.

On a side note, the film is also laced with some of the best character actors in the business, with effective single-to-just-a-few-scene performances by the likes of people who I’ll name, but who you probably won’t recognize until you’ve seen the movie and say, “Hey, I’ve seen him somewhere”: Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Victor Garber (Titanic, Legally Blonde, Alias), Richard Kind (Mad About You), Bob Gunton (The Shawshank Redemption), and Philip Baker Hall (Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Secret Honor, Rush Hour trilogy).

Now, I’ve read a lot of stuff about talking about how Affleck should never have cast himself in the lead role in The Town and how he is awful, and I disagree, though I feel like others could have done more with the role than he did. With Argo, on first viewing the movie, I expected his character to be like George Smiley in his ability to disappear. I didn't like Affleck's performance at all. But on rewatching it, I completely change my opinion. Now, Affleck's performance isn't magical or Best Actor material, but it is good enough. Though miscast physically (Affleck is, at 6’2” and Caucasian, very different from the real-life person, Tony Mendez, he portrays, a Hispanic man who, from his pictures with 5’9” Jimmy Carter, I estimate to be somewhere between 5’8” and 5’9”), he still gives an effective performance. He has some great moments, especially when he's talking to his son on the phone and when he's convincing the escapees to trust him and follow his plan, showing the right emotion and authority. Nevertheless, I feel that a few others, namely Edward James Olmos, Jimmy Smits, or even Benicio del Toro would have all been better suited to the role, mainly because they are all Hispanic-American actors, and I believe that Olmos and del Toro, if not also Smits, are better actors than Affleck.

As an Academy Award fanatic, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t talk about Argo’s chances other than just my opinions like have already have earlier. The film seems like a sure thing a get a Best Picture nomination, but so did The Town in 2010 and that was snubbed in favor of 127 Hours, Winter’s Bone, and The Kids Are All Right. Affleck absolutely should get a Best Director nod, but I’m not sure whether they’ll give him one or repeat 2010 and fail to recognize him again.

Argo is a truly amazing film with a story that succeeds because it knows not to overstep its bounds and a director who does pretty much everything right and often does more than that, doing everything spectacularly. This a nearly perfect film that is a very worthy addition to the thriller genre and a film that deserves a place next to the likes of All the President’s Men (1976), the original Manchurian Candidate (1962), Fail Safe (1964),and JFK (1991) as one of the best political thrillers ever made. ★★★ out of ★★★★★.