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Movie review: "Argo" is worth seeing

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Just when you thought good, original filmmaking was dead in Hollywood, a film like "Argo" appears and restores your faith, however temporarily, in American moviemakers.

This movie proffers all those elements that make a movie great: historically based suspense (some say the best stories are those you cannot make up), comedy splashed throughout, terrific, understated acting, dramatic cinematography and crisp writing. "Argo" is a welcome mixture of suspense, thought-provoking dialogue and a "popcorn movie" identity.

Based on the actual events surrounding the Iranian hostage crises in 1979 (it's surprising that it took 33 years for a worthwhile movie to be made about this event), "Argo" doesn't at all focus on the 444 days that 52 Americans spent in captivity (after the initial storming of the embassy), but rather on the six embassy workers who escaped to the Canadian ambassador's residence and spent 79 days there before they escaped Iran with considerable help from the Canadians. (Note:  this is not a spoiler. The basis of this movie obviously was a huge national news event in 1980.)

Ben Affleck stars in perhaps his best on-screen performance ever (yeah, I know, that isn't saying much) as Tony Mendez, a CIA ex-filtration expert operative. His acting is remarkably understated and I was shocked with the acting choices he made where the dialogue could have easily led him elsewhere. His 1979 brushed-and-blow-dried Andy Gibb-like hair put me back a bit a first, but he quickly slipped into his character and was enjoyable for the length of the movie.

What is even more remarkable is that Affleck continues to make a name for himself as a big-time Hollywood director. After much well-received critiques for "The Town" and "Gone Baby Gone", Affleck's third film may have made him a go-to director in the coming decade. It is readily apparent that he recognized the strength of the script and was true to it throughout. He played his actors well and got performances from them that are a step above the typical. Most important, he edits well, and with one exception does a nice job of continually moving the story forward.

Cinematography was done by Rodrigo Prieto, who also filmed "Brokeback Mountain" (Oscar-nomination) and "21 Grams". The shots were authentic and beautiful, ranging from tight and close to broad and expansive, and they transitioned rather seamlessly. The only ones that stood out were some abrupt wide and panning shots that sort of gave the scene a Peter Jackson-feel, but overall it was a gorgeous film to watch, especially within the Tehran marketplace and city shots (all filmed in Istanbul).

It is also noteworthy, as with any historically movie, how well the costumes and sets match the period. By any measure of comparison, "Argo" is a step above most. The movie is filled with bad late-1970s clothes, haircuts, huge clunky eyeglasses, and bushy mustaches. Ashtrays are filled with cigarettes, rotary-dial phones are maddening and the CIA uses pressurized air tubes to communicate throughout their building. With interspersed audio and video of Jimmy Carter speeches I was taken right back to 1979. Had not the subject matter been so serious, it would have been a welcomed ride.

What gave the film an artistic depth that is not often seen was the incredible core of secondary actors "Argo" amassed. Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad" fame deftly handles the role of Affleck's CIA boss and has some of the best one-liners in the show. His timing is impeccable and his performance embodies what makes a great character actor great. I didn't recognize him until the credits rolled (being of a fan of "Breaking Bad", I'm use to his bald head and not the 1979 bad haircut and mustache). If you've seen the majority of his work, he is one of the rare actors who can create distinct and separate characters each time on the screen.

One of the standout moments of the film was the movie-within-a-movie scene where "Argo" did a complete 180 degree turn and involved the CIA enlisting the help of Hollywood to pull off its rather elaborate escape plan. John Goodman plays an Academy Award-winning makeup artist who helps Affleck begin to pull off his ruse and has a bevy of one-liners that are laugh-out-loud funny.

Just as Goodman threatens to steal the movie, out of nowhere Alan Arkin appears and does just that. Arkin plays a sardonic, stereotypical 1970s Hollywood producer and through no fault of his own makes those around him look amateurish in their craft. His comic abilities, his sense of timing and ability to move from dramatic moments to comic are uncanny.

Under the heading that nothing is perfect, there is the unnecessary film time regarding Affleck's character and his marital separation from his wife and the resulting distance from his son.  Moreover, the film gave those under 40 years old, at its opening, a brief history lesson of Iran, the newly deposed Shah, and the rise to power of the Ayatollah. At times, it got a little politically slanted, which to me, in a good popcorn movie, is unwelcome.

As with any Hollywood movie, events are exaggerated, omitted or just plain inserted for entertainment value, and "Argo" is replete with such beasts. Though not as bad as most movies, it goes without saying there were in actuality many people who helped these six Americans escape their potential captives and likely deaths who go unmentioned. It'd be a shame if the moviegoer did not take a moment to read-up on what actually happened 30-odd years ago. 

This is a movie with a lot of depth, suspense and intellect punctuated with moments of levity that make it a brilliant endeavor. Go see it.

I give it 8 of 10 stars.

About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!