Movie review: 'Argo' tells thrilling story of daring rescue

By Jeffrey Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Oct. 12 2012 12:08 p.m. MDT

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in "Argo."

Warner Bros.

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Following his 2007 directorial debut with “Gone Baby Gone” and its critically acclaimed follow-up “The Town,” Ben Affleck proves his second career as a director is no joke with “Argo,” a film that’s already generating plenty of Oscar buzz.

What’s really remarkable about “Argo,” however, is that, even though it boasts one of the most outlandish, absurd premises of any film this year, it’s all based on true events.

The stranger-than-fiction story follows Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfiltration” expert brought in during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis to help six American citizens escape from Tehran. The plan he concocts? To use a fake sci-fi movie as a cover, allowing the Americans to sneak out in broad daylight as members of his film crew.

Based on the real Tony Mendez’s own account of the rescue effort — a story that was only declassified in 1997 — “Argo” is that rare combination of brainy and entertaining.

A lot of the credit for its success as a film should go to Affleck, who also co-produced alongside George Clooney based on a script by first-timer Chris Terrio.

In his third outing as a director, Affleck demonstrates a superb sense of balance. At times, “Argo” plays like a white-knuckle thriller while, at others, it feels almost documentary-like in its detailed depiction of the events of the Iranian Revolution. In spite of the grim subject matter, however, the filmmaker wisely prevents things from ever becoming too dark thanks to some well-placed bits of humor (mostly involving Mendez’s cohorts in Hollywood).

The film’s larger events are also nicely juxtaposed with a side story involving Mendez’s personal life, suggesting — albeit briefly — the individual cost of living with too many secrets.

As with his previous directorial effort, “The Town,” Affleck manages to surround himself with plenty of talented people. Alongside the former Jack Ryan and “Daredevil” star, Affleck, who delivers a solid performance as the emotionally taxed CIA agent, “Argo” features a terrific ensemble cast, including actors like Bryan Cranston (TV’s “Breaking Bad”), Titus Welliver (“Lost”) and Victor Garber (“Titanic”).

However, it’s the duo of Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and John Goodman (“Trouble with the Curve”) that is responsible for some of the film’s most memorable scenes in their respective roles as an aging Hollywood producer and real-life FX wizard John Chambers.

Perhaps the star of the entire film, however, is really Sharon Seymour’s production design. Together with Alexandre Desplat’s evocative musical score and the skillful cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, it flawlessly captures the late ‘70s time period (complete with flared slacks and huge mustaches).

The filmmakers’ fastidious attention to detail is particularly impressive during scenes recreating the horrors of the 1979 Revolution, including the film’s opening sequence where the U.S. embassy is stormed by a mob of revolutionaries.

Overall, “Argo” is a fantastic film that stands out from its Hollywood peers. It’s at once intelligent, thrilling, skillfully constructed and informative, providing a unique look at a historical moment through the lens of Tony Mendez’s outlandish true story.

Given its subject matter, it’s also worth noting that “Argo” is actually fairly mild in terms of onscreen violence. Instead, Affleck conveys the intensity of the situations through more subtle means. That being said, “Argo” more than earns its R rating with language.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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