[Screen It]


(2012) (Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston) (R)

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Dramatic Thriller: A CIA "exfiltration" operative heads into the middle of the Iran hostage crisis in hopes of getting six American escapees out of the country under the ruse that they're all part of a movie crew scouting Tehran for a new sci-fi flick titled "Argo."
It's 1979 and the Islamic Revolution has forced the Shah of Iran to flee to the United States for safety. As a result, Iranian students and others raid and take over the American embassy in Tehran, and now hold 52 Americans hostage. Yet six others -- Bob Anders (TATE DONOVAN), Lee Schatz (RORY COCHRANE), Mark (CHRISTOPHER DENHAM) and Cora Lijek (CLEA DuVALL) and Joe (SCOOT McNAIRY) and Kathy Stafford (KERRY BISHE) -- managed to escape and have taken refuge in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (VICTOR GARBER).

Hearing one bad rescue plan after another from various U.S. Government types, CIA "exfiltration" specialist Tony Mendez (BEN AFFLECK) finally comes up with a scheme he thinks will give them the best chance at succeeding. And that's for him to pose as a Canadian filmmaker scouting Tehran for a film shoot where the six escapees will serve as various filmmaker and production crew members.

Tony's immediate boss, Jack O'Donnell (BRYAN CRANSTON), thinks it's a crazy idea, as do others further up the command chain. Yet Tony manages to get approval for the idea, and he recruits Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (JOHN GOODMAN) and producer Lester Siegel (ALAN ARKIN) to help him make up a fake film as their cover.

They choose the script for "Argo," a Middle Eastern sci-fi flick, hold a big press conference to announce the start of production, and create a fake studio and back-story support to their ruse. With limited time, they race to make that work so that Tony can fly to Tehran, set things into motion, and hopefully fly out with the six Americans before anyone figures out the elaborate rescue plan.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
I don't know who originally coined the phrase "fact is stranger than fiction," but that paradoxical statement gets further vindication -- twice over, no less -- with the release of the film "Argo." It's the "based on a true story" tale of a CIA operative who travels to Iran in the midst of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, poses as a Canadian filmmaker scouting a middle Eastern sci-fi flick, and attempts to extricate six Americans who managed to flee the U.S. embassy and have taken up refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home.

You can't make up a more unlikely-sounding tale that if pitched at some Hollywood meeting would immediately receive a scrunched up or blank facial reaction and then an escort to the door or waste basket for being too far-fetched and even a ridiculous idea. Of course, thanks to President Clinton declassifying the mission details back in 1997, it turned out to be real, even if the government powers of the time likely had the same initial reaction to the plan.

The second way in which the aforementioned saying is validated is that no one -- beyond family, friends and maybe himself deep down -- ever would have guessed that Ben Affleck would have turned into not only a capable filmmaker, but a critically accepted one. After all, while he might have finally made it big in Hollywood penning "Good Will Hunting" with pal Matt Damon, he followed that up with less than critically acclaimed acting gigs in films such as "Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor," "Surviving Christmas" and, of course, the notorious "Gigli."

Granted, he had decent performances scattered amongst those efforts, and really seemed to be turning things around with his portrayal of Superman actor George Reeves in "Hollywoodland." But then he had to go and prove himself a solid director with "Gone Baby Gone," followed by "The Town" and now "Argo," in which he also stars. Hollywood loves a comeback tale, and while Affleck was never really on the out list, he's now at the top of his game and his latest effort should garner much critical and award love later this year.

Being in the movie industry -- at least on the reviewing side of things -- I'm shocked that I wasn't aware of the real-life story of CIA technical operations officer Tony Mendez and his daring and certainly innovative rescue mission of that sextet of American diplomats. Perhaps it didn't get much press coverage at the time or maybe I was distracted by something else. In any event, it's one of those real life stories that's tailor-made for a big screen adaptation, and Affleck and company easily knock this one out of the ballpark. It might still be early in the Best Picture award race season, but this is clearly one of the top frontrunners.

To demonstrate how entertaining the film is, it had me captivated and enthralled from start to finish despite knowing -- thanks to a "CBS Sunday Morning" story about the real incident and man behind it -- the overall gist and especially how things ultimately turned out. Yes, I'm fairly sure that Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio likely tweaked various elements and perhaps took some other artistic liberties with what actually happened (especially in the increasingly tense third act) to heighten the overall experience, but it's solid nonetheless for the entirety of its two-hour runtime.

It's also funnier than expected, with John Goodman and Alan Arkin having a ball playing an award-winning Hollywood make-up artist and producer respectively who are recruited by the CIA operative to serve as verifiable cover and back-story to the ruse. They're given some terrific dialogue with which to work and both nicely add some necessary comic relief to what's otherwise a dramatic thriller.

Affleck nicely underplays his character along the lines of how a real federal agent would likely behave (as compared to the typical, larger than life Hollywood representation), while Bryan Cranston is good as the op's boss at Langley. Those playing the six hideouts also believably embody their characters, both in behavior and physical looks (late '70s hairstyles, clothing, etc.).

In fact, Affleck has shot the film to look like a pic from that era, ranging from resurrecting the old Warner Bros. opening credits logo to inserting all sorts of old news and other film clips from the era. While it's undeniably a timely movie in terms of what's currently going on in Iran and other areas of the Middle East, the filmmakers avoid inserting contemporary politics or glaring hindsight into the offering. Their film has an old veneer, yet feels fresh and exciting. It may seem far-fetched, but "Argo" is one of the year's best and rates a solid 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 8, 2012 / Posted October 12, 2012

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