Argo (2012): Ben Affleck’s Oscar Card, Starring Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston

argo_posterArgo, a sharply observed political thriller laced with witty humor, announces the arrival of Ben Affleck as a major Hollywood player.  With this third feature, Affleck is no longer a promising but an accomplished filmmaker, in full control of his faculties.

World-premiering to rapturous reception at the Telluride Film Fest (as a sneak preview) and at the Venice Film Fest (in competition), “Argo” plays at the Toronto Film Fest this weekend before opening theatrically in October.  Warner should expect good returns for its mid-range player, likely to get positive reviews from most critics.

Based on true events, “Argo” is a dramatic thriller that is not only set in the late 1970s, but also recalls the character-driven features of that era, considered by many critics to be one of Hollywood’s Golden Ages.

With exacting eye, and meticulous attention to detail, Affleck chronicles the risky–life-or-death–covert operation to rescue six Americans, which unfolded behind the scenes of the Iran hostage crisis. As the story progresses, we learn of new facts and vital information, kept in secrecy and thus unknown by the American public for decades.

Wearing comfortably multiple hats, Affleck directs and stars in “Argo,” benefiting from the generous collaboration from the liberal and politically minded producers, star George Clooney and writer-director Grant Heslov.

argo_5I was a student at Columbia and recall vividly the shocking incident and its limited (and biased) coverage by the mass media, due to many different factors.  On November 4, 1979, as the Iranian revolution reaches its boiling point, militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage.

Even more shocking and remarkable is the tale of how, in the midst of panic and chaos (to say the least), six Americans manage to slip away and find refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home, where they stayed for close to three months.  For a good reason, they were fearful of their future, some expecting to be discovered and executed.

Realizing that it is only a matter of time before the six are found out and likely killed, Tony Mendez (well played by Affleck in a convincing period look) a CIA “exfiltration” specialist, comes up with a risky plan to get them safely out of the country.   Without spoiling the suspense and fun, let’s just say that Mendez posed as a Candian movie producer scouting locations for a low-budget sci-fi flick.

At first, the plan seems so incredible, bizarre, surreal, and fantastic (in both senses of the term fantasy ), that its details suggest they were borrowed from a Hollywood epic actioner.

Affleck deserves credit for casting each role with superlative character actors.  Oscar winner Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) steals every scene he is in as the cynical Hollywood old-timer, who helps pull off the outlandish scheme. Equally good are Bryan Cranston (of TV’s “Breaking Bad”), as a world-weary CIA operator, and the always reliable John Goodman, as a skillful (and funny) makeup artist.

The large supporting cast includes Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Victor Garber, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Scoot McNairy, Chris Messina, Michael Parks, and Taylor Schilling.

The detailed screenplay is credited to Chris Terrio, based on Antonio J. Mendez’s “The Master in Disguise” and the Wired Magazine article, “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman.

What makes “Argo” Affleck’s most fully realized work is a display of  a unified, personal vision (which was missing from his first movie, “Gone Baby Gone”) and a masterful control over the production, which are even more impressive considering that this was the first Affleck picture not to be shot in his hometown, Boston.

“Argo” celebrates great American qualities (all beginning with I): Intelligence, intuition, inventiveness. The success of the team is based not on fighting skills, or being able to kill their opponents, but on outwitting the enemy–and with a fake movie at that.  Its a clever conceit, which shows the power of filmic imagination as applied to politics, even when it concerns a movie that was never intended to be realized in the first place!

The picture was shot in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Langley, Virginia (headqaurters of the CIA) and Istanbul, standing in for the turbulent Tehran. “Argo” displays a compelling visual style, which serves the material suitably without calling attention to itself; the sharp imagery by the briliant Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (“Brokeback Mountain”).

Other technical values are also first-rate, including Sharon Seymour’s production design, William Goldenberg (“The Insider”) editing, which cuts and intercuts between events, personas, and locations in a mode that enhances the thrills of the suspenseful material.

Watching the actors’ hair, makeup and wardrobe offers an inisghtful look back incidents that had occurred long time ago, but have retained their political timeliness and socially relevancy.  (Affleck has said: “If I’m going to ask other people to have really humiliating 1970s hair, I had to be the first one”).

This fall movie season began with a bang, first Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” and now Affleck’s “Argo.”  Though they are different directors, both Anderson and Affleck represent similar credo, aiming to make personal autuerist works, which benefit from the technical resources provided by the New New Hollywood.

If Affleck, who’s only 40, continues to develop as a filmmaker he’ll follow in the footsteps of other actors who became great directors, prime among them is Clint Eastwood, who is 82 and still going strong.

Should you wonder why it has taken so long to make a movie out of this story, the answer is secrecy.  It was President Bill Clinton who finally declassified the material in 1997.