Friday, October 19, 2012


Ben Affleck's third trip behind the camera is Argo, a slick and smooth piece of big studio entertainment, a sort of which many could make the argument that Hollywood long ago forgot how to make.  From the beginning, using the retro Warner Bros. "W" logo, Argo makes a plea to be true to its period, and unites the growing directorial sensibilities of Affleck into a more esteemed setting.  Set during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1980, there's a sobering disclaimer, but the film-- glossy and greased like a well-oiled pan, is an entertaining piece of showmanship; a professionally and structurally sound studio movie elevated elite status for its daring to showcase a serious, real world situation.  The narrative of Argo-- six Americans the CIA tries to extract from Iran by dressing them us as a Canadian film crew-- brings with the narrative of Ben Affleck.  Once considered a stalwart Hollywood up and comer, crowned Oscar winner for co-writing his breakthrough film, primed for pretty boy status, only to become box office poison once his celebrity started to outweigh his films, Affleck found career redemption behind the camera.  First taking on the genre piece Gone, Baby, Gone to good notices, then tackling the heist yarn The Town, which yielded nice box office returns and bona fide clout.  That Argo is a film that recounts an American horror story is admirable, however it's in his service to Hollywood that will likely make the film seemingly more artistically successful than it actually is.  There's a humbling cinematic homage to the screen that make Argo, perhaps less comparable to great reality-based bombshells of 1970s filmmaking than to last years films-are-our-world mentality of The Artist.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent, and becomes entangled when it becomes clear that six Americans manage to escape the American Embassy in Iran as the crisis begins.  They seek refuge at the private home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber.)  The real challenge is how to get them out of Iran, as the anti-American sentiment continues to rise; there's a nice respite in the political realm of Argo that presents the case clearly, authoritatively, and certainly patriotic, but still manages to sneak real world dimension into the story instead of merely painting the red, white and blue as grand healers of all.  Mendez begins to challenge every suggestion brought up-- Affleck, in a performance that's natural and form fitting, but never showy does himself a nice degree of justice in that, even as the star of the film, he relents the heavy lifting from himself on camera.  He's never come across so human on screen before, despite arguably doing less than ever.  Mendez concocts a crazy plan-- wild enough that this loosely based on a true story couldn't dare to dream up on its own-- what if the six Americans were Canadian filmmakers scouting for a new film.  1980s filmmaking makes that accessible to believe as these were the years where the birth of blockbuster had just arrived and Star Wars (a film partially shot in exotic locales like Tunisia) had sent Hollywood and the world into a sort of mania.  Mendez sells the concept in a way more accustomed to Hollywood deal-making than anything else, but there's a daring sense of adventure, twinkle of suspense, and gleeful sense of entertainment all at play that make Argo a fun thrill ride.  A higher degree of difficulty artistic treasure may be aroused, but in earnest in highly manipulated.

There's a lot of fun, and much actorly grandstanding in the first stages as Mendez lands in movie land.  Seeking the help of acclaimed make-up artist, and covert CIA conjurer John Chambers, a real life beacon of Hollywood, and Oscar winner for his work in Planet of the Apes, and played with graceful notes of dry humor by John Goodman, Mendez gets the ball rolling.  Chambers connects him with middle of the line producer Lester (Alan Arkin; enjoyable hammy and cranky as ever) and comes across a script for a science fiction, Star Wars-rip off called Argo.  Making the film a seeming reality in the biz begins as Mendez prepares to enter Iran.  At first the American fugitives-- all mostly faces with scant identity of themselves-- are unsettled by the arrival of Mendez, unaware how his crazy plan can work (the CIA is in a similar situation with ace actors like Bryan Cranston and Kyle Chandler providing differing sides of the pendulum.)  Of course, Mendez is risking not just their lives, but his own, and trust in him is earned, mercifully without making too many sappy gestures.

The last stretches of Argo are phenomenal, clearly establishing and building tension from frame to frame, relaying the movie-making entertainment at the start with a clear directive where there's real stakes and genuine suspense-- much of that credit belongs to editor William Goldenberg, who with each cut, makes that tension palpable and for the only time in the film, real.  What before feels like on the surface pieces of Hollywood professionalism and discipline at its finest (which, indeed is a neat trick in it of itself) builds with the charge of electricity that's genuinely sweeping.  As the group, led by Mendez begins their trek to the Tehran airport, there's a danger looming at every corner, and any false note could lead to all their undoing.  Affleck stages the events slowly and swiftly, and provides with a great filmmaking sense of authority, the rules of the game.  For Argo is above nothing a superior thriller that happens to be set in a real world sense of danger.  The reality isn't nearly as important as is the look and feel; Argo achieves that ultimately.

With Gone, Baby, Gone, Affleck established he was serious in filmmaking; The Town made it clear that that cache was deserved with audience residuals, and Argo cements a larger, more accomplished slice of that puzzle.  Here, he's working not just outside his Bostonian comfort zone, but one a larger scale, a more ambitious one.  And while Argo isn't nearly on par with the film that it may like to be in a larger company with, the great American muckraking pieces of filmmaking that were around in the 70s (All the President's Men comes to mind) nor even smoother recent pieces of actors-turned-directors (like George Clooney's Good Night...And Good Luck), there's a neat feat of watching a filmmaker enhance their gifts and tools, refined and rejuvenated, every time out.  At this rate, Affleck may yet have a masterpiece his way soon.  B+

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...