Film is Freedom
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy
Somewhere along the line, Ben “Gigli” Affleck became one of the most astute and interesting directors working in modern Hollywood. Sure, The Town wasn’t as good as Gone Baby Gone, but then, very few films are. One movie that not only meets but exceeds the standard set by Affleck’s first effort, though, is Argo – quite simply, it’s one of the best films of the year.
            Based on a true story – one that was only declassified in 1997, in point of fact – Argo details the efforts of CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck, pulling double duty) to rescue six American embassy workers from Tehran following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The plan he hits upon is ludicrous, but it’s the best of a bad bunch; create a fake science fiction film project – the eponymous Argo – and smuggle the six out of Iran while posing as a film crew on  location scout. With the approval of his cynical and harried boss (the ubiquitous Bryan Cranston), Mendez recruits Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to his cause, and begins to build buzz around a movie that doesn’t exist, in the hopes that their cover story will fool the fanatical Revolutionary Guards who are hunting the escapees.
            What impresses the most about Argo is how assured it is. Affleck’s only three films into his directorial career, but his confident staging and steady hand on the tiller speaks of someone with the sensibilities of a veteran studio filmmaker. Indeed, Argo is kind of a throwback the ’70s heyday of political thrillers, with Affleck aping not just the fashions and design aesthetics, but the film techniques as well. Hell, even the Warner Brothers logo that prefaces the film is the same one used in 1979.
            But the film is not just an exercise in cinematic nostalgia; it’s an incredibly taut thriller, grounded in reality but leavened with the humour inherent in the bizarre rescue plan. It’s impossible not to laugh at the strange scenarios that play out when the covert world intersects with Hollywood chutzpah – the table reading of the Argo script, with actors wearing costumes from Star Wars, Buck Rogers, and the like is hilarious – but the film never lets us forget that there are real stakes involved, and real lives on the line. It’s that intersection of the serious and the silly that gives Argo its drive.
            Come awards season, Argo is going to clean up. It’s exactly the kind of film that gets statues thrown at it, yet it doesn’t feel cynical or calculated. It’s a tense, classically constructed thriller that assumes an adult audience, and we get precious few of those these days. The fact that Affleck has made such films his stock in trade means he’s a director worth keeping an eye on, and Argo is evidence that, right now, he’s operating at the height of his considerable powers. Don’t miss it.

(First published in X-Press Issue 1341 24/10/2012)

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