October, 2012, Thriller

 I've only seen 25 movies this year - - and with little more than 10 weeks remaining until we ring in 2013, it’s safe to say this year will go down as having offered the poorest output of worthwhile films in recent memory. Of the 25, only a half dozen stand out – and 3 of those were actually released at the end of 2011 (A Better Life, A Separation & Hugo) to qualify for Oscar competition last spring. There remain only 3 movies released this year  I’d urge everyone to see; The Intouchables, The Master (for serious film-buffs only) and this pulsating thriller directed by and starring Ben Affleck.

 He plays C.I.A. agent Tony Mendez who risked his life in the late stages of Jimmy Carter’s presidency to enter Iran masquerading as a Hollywood film producer in order to rescue 6 Americans diplomats that had escaped the takeover of the American Embassy there. How Mendez conceived this brazen rescue effort and the lengths to which he went in creating a cover story worthy of Iranian scrutiny makes for 2 hours of the most exciting movie-going you’ll see in a very long time.

 The lucky six were given sanctuary in the Canadian embassy and lodged there with Ambassador Ken Taylor and his wife. When word reached our State Department and CIA, a number of potential rescue scenarios emerged, but it was Mendez’s outlandish plan that finally won the support of our government's officials. Posing as a film producer who was scouting desert locations for a science fiction movie, Mendez planned to enter Iran, obtain forged Canadian passports and brazenly extract the hostages on a commercial airline flight.

 How’s that for good old-fashioned chutzpah?

 Working from a script by screenwriter Chris Terrio that's  larded with one-liners reminiscent of Billy Wilder's comedic farces, Argo’s first reel traces Mendez’s work with a Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) and a makeup artist (John Goodman) who help him fabricate a film production company to withstand the scrutiny of Iran’s Republican Guard. (Be sure to note the storyboards used to provide historic background as the movie opens; they play a crucial role later on).

These lighthearted scenes end abruptly when Mendez gets on the flight to Teheran: the movie's final hour and a half provide ascending doses of tension as Mendez faces one hurdle after another in his desperate effort to leave the country with his "crew" intact before the impending trial of the captive American still held in the burned out shell of what was once the American embassy.

Arkin and Goodman are standouts in a gagle of critical supporting roles as is Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s immediate superior. But Argo belongs to Affleck; working on both sides of the camera, his Mendez becomes a perfect blend of understated bravado, biting sarcasm and the crucial sensitivity that finally allows his reluctant wards to put their lives in his hands.

Most contemporary thrillers these days rely on the increasingly sophisticated computer techonology now available which can trick the eye and highten the pulse with feats of apparent super-human skill; one only need think of all the box office successes of the past few years built entirely on comic book characters. But Argo generates its suspense entirely from the predicament of its characters; there are no exciting chase scenes, leaps across chasms during rooftop pursuits, no speeding cars threading their way through impossibly congested city streets, no shoot-outs with fewer bullets fired than villians liquidated; this movie's intensive focus simply follows a small group of highly vulnerable people "on the ground" and allows us to share in the wrenching agony of those trying to so hard to assist them from nearly half way around the world. That juxtaposition will have you squirming in your seats.  

 Argo unfolds with the proper amount of historical background in the opening scene and closes with some fascinating “whatever happened to” tidbits as the final credits roll. From first shot to last, this one’s outstanding.

 The Verdict? A sure-fire Oscar contender and absolutely one of only two or three must-see films of the year.   

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