January 23, 2013

Argo Is a '70s-Style Political Thriller

Best Bad Plans

John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck.

ARGO (R) It's 1979, and the Iranian Revolution is in full swing. Six Americans are hiding in the Canadian embassy, and CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) devises a way to free them: pose as a movie big shot, get into Iran and smuggle out his "crew." Based on a true story.   

Although Argo was released last October, recently it has been generating major awards buzz, especially after winning the Best Motion Picture Drama prize last week at the Golden Globes. Is it the best movie of the year? No. It is, however, one of the most entertaining, well-acted and suspenseful American political thrillers in some years. Big Hollywood commercial movies like Argo don't get made much anymore. Back in the 1970s, though, intelligent thrillers with great suspense—like Dog Day Afternoon and All the Presidents Men, etc.)—were easy to find. Blame George Lucas for ruining the party. 

Director/star Affleck immediately pays homage to that earlier era by using Saul Bass' memorable red, white and black Warner Bros. logo from the 1970s. Most people in the audience won't notice it, but it's a secret handshake cluing us in that the filmmakers get it. For the most part, Affleck does get it, at least as a director. As an actor, he's always been a bit of a drip, and really doesn't improve much here. He, thankfully, doesn't do anything wrong, either. He's just a blank slate. Affleck is a much better director, though, and wisely surrounds himself with a great cast, allowing everyone in the ensemble to have a small moment to shine, particularly Alan Arkin as Hollywood movie producer Lester Siegel, Bryan Cranston as Affleck's CIA supervisor Jack O'Donnell and John Goodman as legendary special effects makeup artist John Chambers. Scoot McNairy, who was one of the highlights in the recent crime movie Killing Them Softly playing a thief, likewise stands out here as one of the Americans in Tehran. 

Slick, efficient and energetic, Argo is a reminder that you don't need a bunch of CGI robots mindlessly stomping each other for two-and-a-half hours or angry men with guns pointing them at other angry men with guns to keep audiences riveted. All you need is a slow-moving line at the airport, a man with a fake passport, a suspicious guard and a ringing telephone. Your heartbeat will be racing in no time.