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Ten Word or Less Review : Ben Affleck is now more credible than Matt Damon.

I think it might be reasonable to assume that before he’s done with Hollywood, Ben Affleck might snag himself a Best Director Oscar.  After a career flame out that would leave most actors cast into the ranks of second rate TV shows, as well as raging alcoholics  Affleck has built a second career for himself as a respected director of mainstream dramas.  They still make them.  I’m shocked too!  With Gone Baby Gone, The Town and now Argo, there’s little doubt that the one time celebrity whipping boy has the eye for mature material few filmmakers will bother with in our superhero obsessed age.  And while some are giving Argo big Oscar chances I don’t think Affleck’s Iranian hostage drama has escalated him to the master class.  But he’s getting closer.  Argo is very high quality but stamping it the best of the year speaks more to the poor quality of the year than any overpowering quality of the movie at hand.

In 1979 the U.S. gave sanctuary to Iran’s ousted Shah, a loathed national leader whose return to Iran was demanded by students and militants to face charges of crimes against the people.  I.E. they wanted to hang his ass Saddam style.  With the U.S. refusing to return the Shah, Iranian protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy and took the 52 staff members hostage, a well documented political drama that took more than 400 days to resolve.  Little known to anyone at the time, six employees snuck out a back door and took refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador.  After a couple of months of thumb twirling and situation watching, enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA ‘exfiltrator’ charged to get the U.S. workers out of Iran under the nose of an increasingly unstable and violent government.  There are people being hung from construction equipment in the street.  Gun wielding thugs are going door to door looking for anyone who might be anti-Ayatollah.  Mendez’s escape plan for the six trapped workers?  Argo.  A fake science fiction movie which will have him enter the country posing as a movie producer scouting locations and subsequently use the embassy workers as his fake movie crew.  An absurd idea given credence by the fact that it’s absolutely true.

Affleck lovingly hearkens back to the style of 70’s cinema for his hostage drama.  He digs up the old Warner logo that graced screens during the Lumet age, the oblong one that looks like Morse code, and immediately establishes that this movie is a stylistic throw back to those socially conscience and gritty pictures of that tumultuous and confused decade.  He’d probably like Argo to fit seamlessly into a triple feature with All the President’s Men and Network.  Affleck’s direction is designed to not only reflect movies of the age but the era and the event.  He meticulously recreates pivotal situations, stay through the credits, and is careful not to overdramatize or action up the situation to where it no longer hangs onto any truth.  I’d argue that this is an admirable trait for Argo to follow through with but at the same time a nagging problem.  With Affleck determined to respect the situation as is and avoid overreaching dramatic flourishes or embellishments, Argo comes across as a good, sturdy procedural but doesn’t break that boundary   The tension never ratchets up to where it would probably like it to be.  By respecting the events so reverently, he doesn’t transcend the forgone conclusion that is his story.

Affleck’s portrayal of Mendez is as low key and rooted in a desire to be truthful as the rest of the movie.  He doesn’t embellish Mendez with a lot of outward character or forced quirks.  Marriage trouble and a desire to be close to his son is about it.  He chooses to play it subdued and real and the result is a good performance, but something a little more rambunctious or intense may have made Argo more inherently gripping.  If Pacino had played Mendez 30 years ago it may have become a signature role for the legend and Argo would probably have seethed and tensed a little more in its center.  The big personalities are here but they’re in supporting roles.  Alan Arkin and John Goodman knock out the delightfully profane banter, ‘Ar go fuck yourself!’, as a producer and make up artist who take up Mendez’s noble cause.  You wish the cantankerous, back talking duo had gone to Iran with Mendez just to stir the pot a bit.  Bryan Cranston finally gets a supporting role on his resume that he doesn’t have to feel remorse over taking.  It’s his fifth movie appearance this year, John Carter, Rock of Ages, Red Tails and Total Recall, and I’d wager a big nickle that it’s his best.  The actors tasked with playing the six hostages all seamlessly resemble their real life counterparts, once again watch the credits, and make just enough impact for us to care about their fate.

Argo is high quality in many ways, if not really elevating or transcendent in the end.  It does show that Affleck, who showed an eye for action with Town, can take a more subdued road and make it work.  I think calling it a classic or must win Oscar choice is a knee jerk reaction in a flimsy year of mainstream cinema.  It’s a respectable effort from a guy who has had to work very hard to get any respect at all.  Now that he’s got it, let’s hope we can continue to bank on it.


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