‘Must see’ movie - Argo

Simply put, Argo is why we go to movies

It’s entertaining. It’s smart. It’s well-acted. It’s fast-paced and exciting, thrilling at times. It’s based on a true story, no less, of getting Americans trapped in Iran in 1979 out of the country. It takes you out of the present and puts you in a different time, a time meticulously re-created, which helps, of course. But more important than period haircuts and goofy leisure suits, it recreates the mood of an era, a nation’s frustration and anger, all while rollicking along with a crackling adventure

When Iranian militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, taking 56 workers hostage, six U.S. staffers escaped, seeking refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home. The film briskly establishes their predicament in sequences of energetic, you-are-there power. Scenes at CIA headquarters and in revolution-wracked Iran crackle with hard-edged intensity. There’s little overt violence in the film, but the atmosphere is heavy with threat

Somehow the United States has to get the six out. But how? No one seems to know, and each idea is more ridiculous than the last

That’s where Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs) comes in. A CIA operative who specializes in difficult extractions, his idea is crazy, too, but it is, as one person calls it, the best bad option: The six will pose as part of a film crew scouting locations in Iran for a science-fiction film, with Mendez as the producer. But there’s more

To sell it, there has to be a realistic Hollywood element. Mendez calls on John Chambers (John Goodman), a make-up artist who’s helped out the CIA before. Together they meet with Lester Siegel (played with magnificent, biting wit by Alan Arkin), a cranky old producer who spends his time receiving lifetime-achievement awards. Through cocky bouts of one-upsmanship with rival producers and public script readings with actors in kitschy space costumes, he convinces the industry that Argo is a bona fide item, creating secrecy through publicity

Even in retrospect, it sounds crazy. Because it was. So much could go wrong at every turn, something that is also true of the film. But Affleck, directing his third movie, keeps the momentum going non-stop and gets a terrific performance out of every actor, including himself. Among the other notables: Bryan Cranston is perpetually annoyed as Mendez’s boss, a good man stuck in the middle of government bureaucracy. Victor Garber is the picture of decency as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador. Kyle Chandler makes a convincing Hamilton Jordan

Comedic sequences aside, Argo is a tense film about a life-or-death diplomatic crisis, and Affleck ratchets up the tension mercilessly. Mendez prepares his wards for their deception by drilling them in their roles like a taskmaster director. Because their success depends in large part on staying cool and confident, he can’t expose his own misgivings. Affleck underplays his role, virtually hiding behind his longish hair and beard. When he speaks up against a superior’s misguided escape plot before a room full of State Department brass, he’s like a sniper emerging from cover to fire a kill shot. It’s one of Argo’s many teasing ironies that this hero, happiest in shadows, has to play a Tinseltown hotshot to achieve his mission

The film handles the political context of the hostage crisis intelligently, with a prologue that established why Iran’s revolution flared, and how it then burned out of control. The mechanics of the getaway show the action-movie proficiency Affleck demonstrated in his bank heist film The Town. Even though we know the outcome, he keeps us on edge, fretting that a locked door, a computer snafu or a bus with a balky gearbox might fatally delay the fugitives. The finale, a chase across an airport runway, is a riveting exercise in suspense editing. At a time when so many genre movies are mindless assaults on the eyes, ears and intelligence, such superior craftsmanship is a gift to be treasured

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December 05, 2012

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