The most impressive of many impressive things about “Argo” is that it checks the boxes of about four different genres, and absolutely nails all of them. Ben Affleck’s film has elements of thriller, comedy, political and Hollywood satire, and just about every element works. Add in an extraordinary true story and the year’s deepest cast, and “Argo” is an easy pick for the best film of the fall so far.
The film is based on a true story, just about the only episode of the Iranian hostage crisis that turned out well for America: During the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehren in 1979, six American diplomats managed to escape and take refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.
In response, the CIA came up with a plan so wild that it remained classified for nearly 20 more years: a CIA operative (Affleck) poses as a movie producer, in Iran to scout locations for a nonexistent “Star Wars” knockoff, and pretends the Americans are his crew. In creating the faux film, he gets the help of a couple of Hollywood journeymen (makeup artist John Goodman and has-been producer Alan Arkin, both excellent.)
The screenplay was adapted, from a Wired magazine article, by virtually unknown screenwriter Chris Terrio, who I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised to see accepting a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in February. It’s just a wonderfully structured story, full of suspense, great character moments and even a surprisingly amount of laughs.
It’s a story that has echoes of “Wag the Dog” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” one that takes on brand new resonance after the embassy attacks this fall. But the film isn’t particularly political and is primarily concerned with telling the hell out of a great story.
From an acting standpoint, Affleck is subdued but still very good, and leads one of the year’s better casts. Bryan Cranston, in a rare movie performance that’s not an embarrassing shell of his Breaking Bad work, gives a memorable turn as Affleck’s boss, and Goodman and Arkin both nail their roles, too. The same goes for the actors playing the hostages, including Tate Donovan and Clea Duvall, whose face I spent the entire movie trying to place.
The cast also has great character actors all over the place, even in tiny roles- Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver and Richard Kind all show up in bit parts, and a scene with Philip Baker Hall as (I believe) Secretary of State Cyrus Vance delivers the movie’s biggest laugh. And Kyle Chandler plays Hamilton Jordan; one can only imagine how much better the Carter presidency would’ve turned out, had Coach Taylor been his White House chief of staff.
With “Argo,” Ben Affleck completes his unlikely reinvention from “national punchline” to “A-list director.” This movie, from both a scale and filmmaking standpoint, is far beyond anything Affleck achieved with his first two pictures as director, the standout “Gone Baby Gone” and the overrated “The Town.” The opening scene, a staging of the embassy siege itself, is expertly filmed, and the film’s pacing throughout is just about perfect.