Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver
Written by: Chris Terrio, based on an article by Joshuah Bearman
Directed by: Ben Affleck
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violent images
Running Time: 120
Date: 08/31/2012

Argo (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Acts and Fictions

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ten years ago, actor Ben Affleck earned the scorn of critics and moviegoers alike with a series of foolish, misguided movies (Pearl Harbor, Gigli, etc.). Five years later, he delivered the perfect comeback with a superb directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. His second feature, The Town (2010), proved that he was no fluke, and his third, the new Argo, proves that he's here to stay.

Perhaps the best thing I can say for Affleck is that he seems to walk a fine line between respectability and entertainment. People take his films seriously, but they're not dull, forgettable Oscar contenders. Above all they're good, solid entertainments.

With keywords like "Iran" and "true story," Argo smacks of being another dreary Oscar contender -- and it definitely deserves a few nominations here and there -- but in actuality it's destined to be one of the fall's most purely enjoyable films.

The movie takes place in 1979 and 1980 when the hostage crisis began in Iran. A prologue explains/reminds us what happened. The U.S. made the decision to accept and shelter the ousted and dying Shah. Back in Iran, under the new leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the people of Iran no longer tolerated Americans on their soil. An angry mob attacked the U.S. embassy and took everyone hostage for 444 days.

This is the story of six who escaped. They sneak out a side door and eventually find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. But then comes the problem of how to get them back home before they are discovered.

According to the movie, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with the idea of posing as a seven-member film crew scouting for locations. To pull this off, Mendez must assemble a real production office in Hollywood, populated with makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). They find an actual sci-fi script that calls for a Middle-Eastern setting ("Argo"), they create posters and storyboards, and they hold a reading for the benefit of Variety.

Working with this incredible story, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio create an old-fashioned suspenseful thriller in which the mission hangs by a thread at every turn, and in which the tension is occasionally diffused by clever and satirical Hollywood humor. Affleck employs the gritty look of a 1970s-era film, and manages to make the disparate story elements play seamlessly.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of Affleck's greatest talents is casting. He peoples the entire film with memorable faces, characters who develop distinctive personalities quickly, without a voluminous amount of screen time. The great Bryan Cranston is excellent as a CIA manager, Victor Garber is wonderful as the Canadian ambassador, and Clea DuVall plays one of the younger houseguests. Even Affleck's old Dazed and Confused co-star Rory Cochrane is here.

In keeping with this theme, Affleck's two previous films earned Oscar nominations for supporters Amy Ryan and Jeremy Renner, and I expect that Alan Arkin -- at least -- will earn one for his work here. He's a scene-stealer, and he gets a load of hilarious lines, but at the same time, he imbues his character with weight and history.

I fear that Argo is going to be a tough sell, thanks to its mysterious title and serious subject matter. But if you're anywhere within the sound of my voice, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Warner Home Video has released an excellent package with a DVD/Blu-ray combo and an optional Ultraviolet edition. Extras include a commentary track with director Affleck and writer Chris Terrio, and a "picture in picture" option to play along with the movie (which features interviews with key participants from the time). There are also three short featurettes, and a 2005 TV documentary about the incident.

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