It was 1979. A group of militants stormed the United States embassy in Tehran, capturing 52 people they would hold as hostages for the next 15 months. But six American diplomats avoided capture and found sanctuary at another Embassy.
“Argo” tells the (dramatized) story of how a CIA agent, a producer and a make-up artist (both from Hollywood) staged an elaborate fake movie production to provide the cover needed for the attempted rescue of the six diplomats that were otherwise waiting to be discovered by the Iranian militants.
This is the set-up for this phenomenal thriller from actor/producer/director Ben Affleck. Yes, that Ben Affleck, who proved he could direct with 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone” and 2010’s “The Town.” Those films proved that Affleck could handle himself as well behind the camera as he had (at times) in front of it.
But nothing prepared me for “Argo,” one of the best thrillers to come out in a long, long time.
It’s a film that has just about everything as a conflicted hero Tony Mendez (Affleck) walks bravely into one of the most dangerous situations imaginable and asks six terrified people for their complete trust.
Most thrillers or action films culminate with the heroes running, guns blazing, out of the castle, so it’s refreshing to see one where people use nothing but their wits to get past throngs of machine-gun-wielding men who, if their cover is blown, will probably use the “shoot first” philosophy.
But “Argo” isn’t just the kind of thriller that will make you bite your nails and squirm in your seat -- it also contains the right amount of comic relief (in John Goodman and Alan Arkin), a slew of well-rounded (and likable) characters and a fascinating tale of two clashing cultures that are probably never going to understand each other.
What’s most impressive is how well Affleck and editor William Goldenberg (“Heat”) handle all of these elements. Films that have this many things going on at once frequently fall prey to either mass confusion (because there’s too much going on) or ignoring some plot lines in favor of the more important ones. The pacing in “Argo” is perfect -- there’s always tension in the air, but nothing is forgotten as the film powers toward the captivating ending.
I’m also impressed with how many nuanced performances the film contains. Affleck is great as Mendez, and we expect Goodman and Arkin to be good. But Bryan Cranston, as Affleck’s boss, handles several tough scenes with ease. Tate Donovan also stands out as Bob Anders, one of the six in need of rescue.
I’ve racked my brains for several days now and I honestly can’t find a single negative thing to say about “Argo.” It’s one of the smartest, suspenseful thrillers that has been made in a long time. And while I’ve liked Affleck for years, this film is going to make a believer out of anyone who doesn’t, because Ben Affleck -- the director -- knows how to tell one heck of a story.
His first two films were very good, but “Argo” is his first masterpiece. I can’t wait to see it again, and I’m pretty sure that people will be discussing this film years from now.
"Argo" is rated R for language and some violent images.
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