October 18, 2012

'Argo' a thoughtful historical thriller


---- — Ben Affleck has had his successes and failures as an actor. His work as a director, however, has been an unquestioned success.

“Argo,” Affleck’s third film as a director, is a thoughtful historical thriller and one of the year’s best movies.

A mostly forgotten or unknown tale from the Iran hostage crisis — with much of the information classified for years — “Argo” delivers top-notch drama interspersed with occasional big laughs.

The movie vividly brings to life the 1979 takeover of the American embassy in Iran, when 52 American hostages were taken. Six low-level diplomats, however, escaped to the street and were secretly sheltered (after other countries shunned them) by the Canadian embassy.

After the pulse-pounding opening, “Argo” fast forwards a couple of months. The six diplomats are still hiding with the Canadians, but the Iranians are suspicious and the future doesn’t look bright.

Enter exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, played with stoic, unemotional determination by Affleck. All the possible escape plans are terrible, but he has one that’s merely bad — the best bad idea they have, insists Mendez’s CIA supervisor (Bryan Cranston).

Mendez will fly in to Iran alone — pretending to scout locations for a cheesy sci-fi movie — and fly out with the six Americans, pretending to be a Canadian film crew.

The film production has to appear as realistic as possible, though, so a script is optioned, an office is opened, and Hollywood big shots are enlisted.

The movie moves back and forth between the dire situation in Iran, where the six Americans (Clea Duvall, Christopher Denham, Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe) spar and shout and simper in their virtual prison, and the United States, where Mendez tries to put his plan in motion.

John Goodman, as real-life Hollywood make-up man John Chambers, and Alan Arkin, as a sharp-tongued veteran producer, give the film its levity, with sharp-tongued and funny criticism of the film world they inhabit.

The attempted escape, which takes up the last part of the film — granted, with full Hollywood exaggeration of the details — is worth the buildup and certain to keep most viewers on the edge of their seats.

The film is rated R, almost entirely due to a few too many f-bombs used for comedic effect, but like “The King’s Speech,” it is otherwise fine to be viewed by children old enough to be interested in the subject matter.

“Argo” shows a nice attention to detail and a firm sense of history. It also reminds us that the CIA isn’t always wrong, that Canadians are awesome friends, and that Ben Affleck really does know how to direct.

Rental Recommendation: What could be better than following “Argo” with a viewing of “Fargo”? Grade: A+

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Argo Grade: A Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin Rated: R (for language and some violent images) Running time: 120 minutes