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 ★★★★★.