review: argo

By Chris Robinson on 10/30/2012

Two years ago, Ben Affleck directed and starred in a critically acclaimed heist thriller based on real events. Set in a part of the world most Americans have never seen, Affleck used the film not only to entertain (and terrify) his audience, but also to educate them, introducing them to a different way of life, and an alternate worldview.

Synopsis – A dramatization of the 1980 joint CIA-Canadian secret operation to extract six fugitive American diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran. Trailer

Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin

Rating/Runtime: R/120 min.

Dingo Dictum: A-

 

The film was The Town (2010), by all accounts a huge commercial and critical success; with Argo, Affleck returns to that same winning formula.  This time around 1970’s Iran replaces Boston’s seedy criminal underbelly, with disdain for the American government replacing disdain for the law. And the heist is no meager bank break in; in fact, breaking in is the easy part. Here government agent Affleck (playing CIA agent Tony Mendez) is after a human cargo – 6 American diplomats, to be exact – who must be extracted (or “exfiltrated,” in CIA speak) from the cauldron of Tehran during the height of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.  He might be the CIA’s “best exfil guy,” but Mendez’s audacious plan, which involves creating a fake L.A. film company to create a cover story for the diplomats’ exit, seems more likely to lead to painful death and national calamity than a successful escape.

Based on actual events (the mission was declassified by President Clinton in 1997), this eye-opening slice of real American history feels like being transported back in time.  Although unable to shoot on location in Iran (Istanbul, Turkey substitutes) Affleck nails all the details, giving us a convincing look at not only the Iranian capital, but 70’s-era Washington and Hollywood as well.  The Iranian anti-American sentiment is angry, loud, and incessant – Argo is full of infuriated mobs and intense, beady-eyed Iranian men badly in need of a shave.

Although the plot stalls at times – it lacks the relentless, sweep-you-up-and-carry-you-along force of The Town – the film delivers in the end with a daring, white-knuckle finish. Argo’s script is well above average – taught when necessary, but measured enough to allow John Goodman and the always charming Alan Arkin to provide some welcome comic relief.  Both are fabulous, especially Arkin, as is Bryan Cranston in a short but important role. Affleck himself gives at least a capable performance, even if he does little to lend his character much personality or style.

Ultimately, Argo is a winner. A fascinating window into a culture mysterious and bewildering to many Americans, the film is a history lesson that thrills. What’s more, its pro-Hollywood message has some critics already giving Affleck’s latest success some pre-Oscars love.  Δ

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