Affleck guides Argo to great heights

It was only five years ago that Ben Affleck quietly made his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, yet, in that small period of time, he has managed to impress and excite audiences with the pulse-pounding heists of The Town and completed one of the finest political thrillers to come along in years with his latest effort, Argo.  It’s been a swift reinvention that has transformed Affleck from an unfairly mocked performer to Oscar contender and a seriously hot Hollywood property.  Affleck’s intelligently engrossing Argo should go a long way in silencing his most ardent critics and will likely receive a handful of Oscar nominations in January, all for very good reason indeed.

Though telling the tale of the 1979 raid of the US Embassy in Tehran by Islamist revolutionaries, Argo primarily focuses on the six who escaped captivity and sought refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.  With an eye for detail and authenticity, Affleck has faithfully crafted a retelling of the rescue mission too unbelievable to not be true.  While Affleck plays, Tony Mendez, the man the CIA calls on to bring the six home, Argo relies on an ensemble cast to emphasise how the operation came together against all odds.  As one of the six Americans on the run, Scoot McNairy’s Joe Stafford is the slightly meatier role, but the group works well together and is easily relatable, even despite their dated, thick-rimmed glasses and bushy moustaches.  Stateside, Alan Arkin and John Goodman bring a sense of levity to the situation amidst efforts to create a convincing pseudo-Hollywood film production.  The results yield a tightly wound thriller that will leave viewers holding their breath before being offered a few well placed laughs for relief.

After pulling double-duty for The Town, Affleck again has taken a gamble with Argo by playing the film’s lead.  Such arrangements can easily descend into self-indulgence, but Argo speaks only of how naturally skilled a director Affleck is and how measured his performances are.  He makes the tricky balancing act appear effortless, as he illustrates a superb knack for composition and presentation as a director and is careful to never steal the spotlight when on the other side of the cameras.  Arkin excels as shrewd, foul-mouthed Hollywood producer, Lester Siegel.  Once Arkin’s repartee begins to flow, it becomes impossible to imagine anyone else delivering it, due to his delicious gusto.  As Affleck’s boss, CIA officer Jack O’Donnell, Bryan Cranston injects perfect levels of intensity when required and a craggy likability elsewhere.

Though Affleck doesn’t display a sense for striking aesthetic composition, where he does shine is in creating atmosphere.  Along with Chris Terrio’s screenplay, Affleck avoids jingoistic posturing by presenting a fair view of the Iranian revolutionaries by taking moments to allow for their largely understandable grievances.  Argo is not a film interested in defining right and wrong and it is a stronger film for that fact.  All parties are seen to do whatever is necessary to protect their interests.  A cleverly cut together sequence combining a script-reading and an execution highlights the kind of theatricality used by both sides in order to achieve their goals.  By way of a series of barely-made-it moments expertly strung together, Argo’s final act is an absolute nail biter.  A passport stamp has never felt so dramatic.

Argo is not without slight blemishes.  Some of the dialogue fails to be as punchy as it clearly aims to be, but when it does work, it provides several instantly quotable classics.  A bothersome aspect is how the dialogue spoken in Farsi is inconsistently subtitled.  These lines may be of little importance, but the unevenness breaks the suspension of disbelief at some rather inopportune times.  This combined with, what some might argue, is possibly a too dramatised finale make it difficult to sing Argo’s praises without some minor reservations.

All things considered, however, it’s difficult to not view Argo as one of 2012’s best films.  There may not be any one performance within that will blow an audience away, but Argo is an excellently crafted sum of its well-oiled parts.  Atmosphere and suspense prove to be the film’s biggest stars and Affleck here demonstrates that he can deliver them in spades.  Detractors take note: Affleck is the real deal and Argo provides a special message for you, straight from Arkin’s Lester Siegel himself.  9.5/10

Argo is in UK cinemas 7 November

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