Published Oct 11, 2012With the help of Boston accents and hardscrabble locales, Ben Affleck's first two films (Gone Baby Gone and The Town) created vibrant, insular worlds. For his latest, Argo, the scope is broader, both geographically and thematically, and the stakes are higher, though he wisely takes a similarly intimate approach.
Ostensibly a historical drama, Argo depicts C.I.A. escape expert Tony Mendez's (Affleck) attempted extraction of six Americans from Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Using his "best bad idea," he enlists the aid of a Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist (John Goodman) to orchestrate a clever ruse involving a fake sci-fi film.
And that's when Argo gets interesting. Using an escapist film as a vehicle for a real escape, it slyly considers the importance and power of cinema without opting for grandiose claims or backslapping. To a point, it's a movie about moviemaking, without becoming self-congratulatory.
Moreover, the setup lets Affleck skewer Hollywood, have a laugh with Arkin and Goodman, and offer a respite from the thick tension in Tehran. The director does a mostly accomplished job of toeing that line, though interspersed acts of violence and brief voltas create an occasionally wobbly focus.
Wherever he and his crew shoot, the set and production design are immaculate, with period details ― from costumes and facial hair to throwback technology and colour palettes ― meticulously rendered. Rory Cochrane's moustache is a particular highlight. Furthermore, relying extensively on old news reports and clips, the tone is complete and engrossing.
A character piece at heart, Argo also focuses on the relationships between fathers and sons, and, in turn, countries and their citizens. Mendez has a caring yet flawed connection with both his son and mentor (Bryan Cranston), while the U.S. Government will only do so much for Americans.
Understated but affable, Affleck is excellent and he bridges the gap between the pomp of Hollywood and the gravitas of Tehran. Arkin, Goodman and Cranston get more room to manoeuvre, injecting much-needed levity, while a breakout supporting turn comes from Scoot McNairy (In Search of a Midnight Kiss).
Like George Clooney (who produced), Affleck is an actor's director and he stacked the cast with talent. Thus, great players wander in and out, shoring up bit parts. Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall provide a solid game of "Spot the Character Actor."
Brainy yet thrilling, Argo is inventive, assured, and ultimately affecting. And did I mention Cochrane's moustache? (Warner)