Argo (****)

There are few things more pleasurable than to see a filmmaker just get better and better behind the camera, literally evolving before your very eyes. With Ben Affleck and ‘Argo’, you have the added benefit of seeing the actor/writer/director doing the best work of his career in a movie that may just be my favorite of the year. From his great directorial debut ‘Gone Baby Gone’ to his amazing sophomore feature ‘The Town’, and now to his damn near perfect new film ‘Argo’, Affleck can now be talked about as one of the great directors working today, that’s for sure. No 2012 so far can claim to be as suspenseful or adrenaline rushing while still offering Oscar worthy writing and direction, along with terrific acting to boot. Affleck has outdone himself behind the camera here, and along with his own excellent lead performance and the tremendous script by Chris Terrio, all of the elements are in place for this to be a huge awards contender. Factor in some great supporting turns from Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, and John Goodman, not to mention the rest of the ensemble, and the end result is something much more than just a political thriller…it’s also the current frontrunner for Best Picture. Now, it’s assured of nothing right now, and having seen ‘Lincoln’ already I know there’s some stuff competition ahead, but at this moment the Oscar would go to it if the race ended today. The flick opens on Friday and anyone who doesn’t rush out immediately to see it is doing themselves a real disservice.

Based on the unlikely true story, the film follows the up until the Clinton administration classified mission that freed 6 Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. When the revolution in Iran was reaching critical mass, the American embassy was stormed on November 4th of that year and 52 hostages were taken. Not among them were a half dozen Americans who literally slipped out the back door. Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Cora Lijek (Clea DuVall), Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochran), Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), and Kathy Stafford (Kerry Bishe) holed up in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) and waited for help, fearing none would come. Luckily, the CIA is on the case and was trying to plan a rescue mission. All of their ideas were terrible though, so when they bring in their top specialist on “exfiltration” Tony Mendez (Affleck), they opt to go with his idea, which the deem to be the “best bad idea we’ve got”. His plan: to sneak the Americans out as part of a location scouting crew for a fake movie shoot. With the help of famed Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Arkin), Mendez helps get the science fiction project ‘Argo’ off of the ground and heads over to Iran to prep the 6 for their escape. However, time is running out and Mendez’s boss Jack O’Donnell (Cranston) warns him that the Carter Administration is getting cold feet. Will Mendez be able to sneak the Americans out while posing as a Canadian film crew? Since this is a true story the answer won’t surprise you, but the thrill of seeing it unfold is among the most exciting sequences I’ve seen all year long.

Ben Affleck has always been underrated as an actor in my book, and he continues to show his talents here in the lead role. Affleck underplays things beautifully as the no-nonsense expert who knows that he’s the only hope the Americans have of survival. The character is only given a few moments of character building to help identify with him, but Affleck’s performance helps to sell that. You never doubt for one moment that this is the man for the job. I may have slightly preferred Affleck’s more dramatic performance a couple years back in ‘The Town’, but this is still an excellent bit of acting and nomination worthy in my eyes. It may not be showy enough for the Academy, but he’s certainly in play. As for the top supporting roles, both Alan Arkin and John Goodman are excellent comic relief and perfectly help anchor the Hollywood section of the film. Arkin is doing a character that’s not too dissimilar from what he’s done before, but he’s so good at it that you won’t mind a bit. He’s probably the most likely Oscar nominee from the acting company, though I’d personally prefer Goodman. He’s a bit more of a likable character and interacts incredibly well with Affleck, but he never quite gets that one moment to make voters swoon, so that could keep Goodman nomination-less for another year. Bryan Cranston gets some great dramatic moments at CIA headquarters and also plays off of Affleck’s character real well. When it comes to the 6 Americans, each of them is good, but really only Scoot McNairy is above and beyond, though both Kerry Bishe and Clea DuVall are very solid. The trio of Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, and Tate Donovan are hardly bad though, trust me there. Able if less than flashy supporting work is also done by Victor Garber, and Chris Messina, while other parts are ably filled by the likes of Phillip Baker Hall, Kyle Chandler, Bob Gunton, Richard Kind, Michael Parks, and Titus Welliver, among many many more. As mentioned above, the top players are Affleck, Arkin, Cranston, and Goodman, but no one is a weak link here.

In his third outing as a filmmaker, Ben Affleck has ceded screenwriting duties and focused solely on directing, leading to a flawlessly made film. From the period details to the cast to the pacing, Affleck has upped his game considerably. Not only does he do outstanding work in recreating the time and place of the movie (seen to amazing effect during the end credits with side by side comparisons of the shots in the film next to actual photographs and still images from the historical events), he also opts to use big sets and tons of extras, helping to fuel the 70’s feel that permeates the flick. The film looks like it’s from that era, and that’s not an accident. At this point, as a director I wonder if there’s anything that Affleck can’t do. The screenplay that he’s working from by Chris Terrio is very tight and fits him like a glove. Especially during the opening sequence detailing the storming of the U.S. embassy and the climatic escape attempt by Mendez and the 6 Americans, you are on the edge of your seat and nearly sweating, a credit to the writing as well as the direction. At my press screening, a big moment in the final part of the film led to a literal standing ovation. If that continues all throughout the season, I think we might have an Oscar juggernaut on our hands. Just about my only complaint about ‘Argo’ is that it lacks the character development that made ‘The Town’ so memorable, but this is a better film overall. From Affleck’s direction and Terrio’s script all the way to Alexandre Desplat’s score, Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography, and William Goldenberg’s editing, this movie is just about perfectly made.

In terms of awards potential, this should be an across the board contender and could be looking at somewhere between 5 and 10 nominations come the big Oscar announcement. I’d call it a lock for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay nods, with Best Supporting Actor a distinct possibility for either Arkin or Goodman and Best Film Editing a very strong possibility as well. Depending on how enthralled the Academy is with the tremendous technical details of ‘Argo’, we could be looking at nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, Best Production Design, as well as a trio of sound related nods for Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. Best Actor for Affleck is even something to keep an eye on. I doubt that it’ll get all of those citations, but it’s bound to get some of them and could wind up with one of the bigger hauls come nomination morning.

‘Argo’ may wind up my #1 film of the year when all is said and done, it’s just that tremendous a movie. This weekend, you owe it to yourself to see what Ben Affleck has done. At every turn this highly anticipated film exceeds your expectations. A tribute to the magic of the movies and its literal lifesaving power, ‘Argo’ may just be Affleck’s masterpiece. I can’t wait to see how it plays during the rest of the awards season. As Clayton likes to say sometimes: ladies and gentlemen, we have a contender. In every single way possible, ‘Argo’ is a major Oscar player…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!