'Argo': Ben Affleck's Oscar-baiting history lesson balances thrills, drama, comedy and Hollywood magic
Ben Affleck's "Argo," opening this weekend in wide release, is one of those films. The movie sheds light on a little-known chapter of the 1979-1980 Iranian hostage crisis in which the CIA got a little help from Hollywood in using a fake sci-fi movie production as a cover to rescue six State Department employees secretly hiding in Tehran. The mission was classified for nearly two decades, until President Bill Clinton declassified it in 1997.
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The film, directed by and starring Affleck and adapted by Chris Terrio from a "Wired" magazine article by Joshuah Bearman, is already racking up significant critical acclaim and looks like a sure bet for multiple Oscar nominations. More importantly, Affleck's savvy mix of suspense, humor and impressive filmmaking should help "Argo" find an appreciative audience.
Here are three reasons "Argo" is worth your time:
1) Ben Affleck is better behind the camera than he is in front of it
This is a bit of mixed blessing, because -- as in his last film, "The Town" -- Affleck serves as both star and director for "Argo." But this is a film more about action, procedure and detail than it is about complex characters. So Affleck's more significant talents are on prime display in the carefully recreated period touches and nail-bitingly tense suspense sequences. It's likely he also deserves credit for infusing the film with a rich sense of humor, which helps provide a nice balance with serious life-and-death situations. There's no question Affleck has blossomed into a top-notch filmmaker, and his work on "Argo" is expected to help him join the circle of Oscar-nominated actors-turned-directors including Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, George Clooney and Mel Gibson.
2) The characters aren't deep, but the supporting cast is strong
Affleck's CIA officer Tony Mendez is the central figure but "Argo" is overflowing with an abundance of talent in supporting roles, many of them instantly recognizable from the small screen. Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad") and Chris Messina ("The Mindy Project") help coordinate Mendez's operation in D.C., while Kyle Chandler ("Friday Night Lights") plays a White House official. Alan Arkin and John Goodman ("Roseanne") get most of the scene-stealing lines as the Hollywood pros helping with the job. Victor Garber ("Alias") is the Canadian ambassador providing them shelter to the men and women Mendez is hoping to rescue, who are played by Clea Duvall ("Carnivale"), Tate Donovan ("Damages"), Kerry Bishe ("Scrubs"), Rory Cochrane ("CSI: Miami"), Scoot McNairy and Christopher Denham.
And that's not all! Zeljko Ivanek ("The Mob Doctor"), Titus Welliver ("Lost"), Keith Szarabajka ("Angel"), Bob Gunton ("24"), Richard Kind ("Spin City"), Tom Lenk ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and Adrienne Barbeau ("Maude") pop up too.
Seriously, "Argo" is a "Hey, it's that guy!" bonanza.
3) It's the kind of smart adult drama people complain Hollywood doesn't make enough anymore
"Argo" isn't without its hokey moments (especially in the final few minutes) and the end credits which feature audio from an interview with Jimmy Carter and side-by-side photos of real people and their on screen counterparts are a little too bragadocious for a film that's otherwise nicely modulated. But part of the reason it's going over so well with critics is that Hollywood rarely steps up with this kind of thoughtful, thrilling, stimulating entertainment for adults. Usually we have to look to indie films or foreign movies to find something that's mature, intelligent and not a sequel or based on a comic book. "Argo" stands with recent major studio releases like "Moneyball" as exceptions to the rule that Hollywood isn't interested in movies for grown-ups anymore.
Hopefully, grown-ups will head to theaters to show their support.