Film Review: ARGO (directed by Ben Affleck)

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by Kevin Bowen on October 12, 2012

in Film


Sixty years ago, at a time of worldwide turmoil, a script that had bounced around finally made it into production. It involved the tangled lives of desperate political refugees trying to escape political danger to America. It ended at an airport, where a handful of classic movie characters decided their problems didn’t amount to a hill of beans.

Watching Ben Affleck’s incandescent Argo reminded me of Casablanca, and not because both use an airport ending. It is in their status as films that exist outside of typical intellectual movements in film history.  They stand out not for being excellent examples of this or that theory. Casablanca isn’t film noir, or German Expressionism, or the French New Wave. Casablanca is just a damn enjoyable movie, classic, the way they used to make them.

I think Argo is destined to be seen in much the same way. While it fits broadly into descriptions like “political thriller,” it is hard to pin it as a member of a class or a current movement in film. It’s just a riveting, professional piece of work – a tribute to what Hollywood can do.

On Nov. 4, 1979, the day that Iranian radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, a group of six Americans escaped the compound. They ended up at the residence of the Canadian ambassador. They stayed there for several months, afraid they would be found, captured, and executed. Eventually, the CIA sent an exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), to remove them from the country safely. The plan involved pretending that the Americans were members of a Canadian film crew scouting for a Star Wars knockoff in development – one named “Argo.”

Argo is a salute to the possibilities of Hollywood invention and re-invention. No one has quite re-invented himself as much recently as Affleck – from laughingstock cover boy to respected director. So it is. A lot of actors who turn to directing still think like actors. What I appreciate about Affleck is that he thinks of telling the story through cinematic technique first and foremost. With precision by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Argo is filled with long tracking shots that move through offices. His affinity for montage is notable, and consistent with his previous effort, The Town.

On top of the technique, Argo remains an emotional movie. This is partly true due to its depiction of an emotionally-charged event in American history. We don’t necessarily get to know them well, but we strongly sympathize with their peril. Even if we know what their ending will be, we feel elation as the plane pulls up its wheels, because we’ve become emotionally involved in their success.

Argo admittedly spices up the ending in Hollywood fashion. When a group of Iranian revolutionary guards chasing an airplane down a runway, you know it’s gone a little too far. But for the most part, this is a measured, smart, emotional rendering of both a difficult moment in history and a small bit of heroism. Argo is a film that stands alone and apart from the rest of Hollywood.

photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures; still photos by Claire Folger/AP.

GK Films and Smokehouse Pictures; distributed by Warner Bros.
rated R
wide release on October 12, 2012

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