by Bill Wine
Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
His first time in the director’s chair was a revelation, his second a back-down-to-Earth victory. But you got the feeling that at some point he would conjure something triumphant.
Ben Affleck’s third directorial outing – his most ambitious moviemaking undertaking yet, released in 2012 following 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone” and 2010’s “The Town” — is a completely absorbing, perfectly scaled, wonderfully suspenseful and enormously satisfying true-life political thriller. Populist entertainment doesn’t get any better.
It’s based on a defying-belief covert CIA mission that took place during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-80, when a militant mob of local revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage, holding them captive for well over a year.
Six American diplomats managed to escape and took refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, played by Victor Garber. But if they were to stay for any longer than the three months they were there, they would certainly be discovered and executed. Thus did a CIA rescue mission become necessary, one that would remain unknown until 1996, when President Bill Clinton declassified it.
It was masterminded and led by CIA operative Tony Mendez, an expert in “exfiltration” played by Affleck, who suggested to his skeptical but supportive supervisor, played by Bryan Cranston, this “best bad idea.” With his help, the six would pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for the hokey science fiction movie that lends the film its title, and then escape the Iranian authorities and fly to Switzerland.
But to sell this big lie, Mendez has to somehow put this fake flick, a “Star Wars” knockoff, in the Hollywood pipeline. So he engages over-the-hill producer Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, and makeup effects whiz John Chambers, played by John Goodman, to help make it appear an authentic film-industry project.
What Affleck accomplishes — with the help of Chris Terrio’s terrific this-actually-happened script and perhaps the moviemaking instincts of Affleck’s co-producer, George Clooney — is a tense, funny, brilliantly edited crowd pleaser, boasting a strong sense of place while juggling three locations (Tehran, Washington and Hollywood) and abundant and expert attention to detail.
And although the life-or-death stakes remain high throughout, never more so than during the extended, riveting, docudramatic, race-against-time climax, there is also time to deliver an affectionate sendup of Hollywood hucksterism.
Affleck is effortlessly charismatic in the lead role, never pushing too much and keeping it real, convincing us that he’s committed to delivering these Americans from danger even as he’s separated from his own son. And Arkin, Cranston and Goodman, under Affleck’s splendidly restrained direction, either lend authority to or garner laughs in every scene they’re in.
At times, the makers seem a bit too concerned with establishing a catchphrase for their film by repeating too many times a line that cannot be repeated here. Oh, it’s clever, all right. But it’s also unnecessary: movies this good insinuate their way into our pop-culture consciousness with or without such help.
So it was no surprise that the film was nominated for seven Oscars, winning for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing, while also attracting nods for Best Supporting Actor (Arkin), Best Music Score, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing.
“Argo” is a sparkling, well-cast “stranger than fiction” entertainment, a home run from director Ben Affleck that, at the time, made him an impressive three for three.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.