Sunday, October 21, 2012


 4.5 / 5 

The tumultuous political climate of the late 1970s is as distant to many of today's moviegoers as World War II was by the time a group of students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage for more than a year.

Ben Affleck's new film Argo takes it for granted that audiences of (ahem) a certain age will remember certain things as if they happened yesterday -- Ted Koppel anchoring Nightline, for instance, or the way that before the advent of answering machines and cell phones, there could be great drama in how many times a phone rang before it was answered ... or the caller hung up.

Argo has such a moment, and it's much to the credit of the film and its director (and lead actor) that the three seconds that elapse between rings seem an eternity.  Affleck has hooked us with a tantalizing reminder of the way we lived just a few decades ago -- and he reels us in with the kind of cinematic suspense that would make Hitchcock's pulse race.

Even if we don't remember the specifics, we know how this will end, so it's even more impressive that Argo winds us up so brilliantly.  This is the truly rare film that warrants a cliched rave like, "It'll have you on the edge of your seat" -- because it will.

Argo tells the lesser known story of the "Canadian Caper," an effort to free six Americans who had fled the U.S. Embassy in November 1979, while 52 of their colleagues got left behind. Word gets out to the CIA, who tries to hatch a plan to rescue the Americans.

Thanks to a quick, spiffy history lesson that begins Argo, there's no good way to go about it -- and of the bad ways, the absolute worst is the idea floated by Tony Mendez (Affleck), whose suggestion is so over-the-top unbelievable, it might work.  Mendez will pose as a Hollywood producer and smuggle out the six, pretending they're part of a film production scouting exotic locations.

Much of the fun of Argo comes from watch Mendez align himself with the '70s-style Hollywood producers (John Goodman and Alan Arkin) who he recruits to bring some credibility to the project.  It's not a stretch to them to think they're working on a movie that will never actually be produced; most of their pictures aren't.  "If I'm gonna make a fake movie," Arkin screams, "it's gonna be a fake hit!"

Even at its most comedic, Argo never forgets that there's an espionage thriller of mammoth proportions just beneath the surface, and when it finally moves back to center stage, Affleck proves that his nail-biting action scenes in The Town were no fluke.

The last 20 minutes of Argo are as tense and as well-constructed as any thriller in recent memory.  This is where Affleck has proven he is one of the best directors working today -- he can take the kind of set-up and characters that in other hands might seem routine and turn them into something fresh and marvelous.

Argo is a thriller about politics, but it's not a political thriller -- whether its makers side with Americans or Iranians, with Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan is irrelevant.  What matters is telling a corker of a story with style and flair, and in that, Argo is a smashing success.

It's not every filmmaker who can wring such suspense out of a shot of a ringing telephone, and it's not every film that can make history come to life as vividly, as dazzlingly as Argo.

Viewed at ArcLight Hollywood -- Oct. 21, 2012


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