'Argo': Ben Affleck Transforms True-Life Events Into Terrific Entertainment (MOVIE REVIEW)

ARGO
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At the age of 25, Ben Affleck was the youngest ever to win the Best Screenplay Oscar, which he shared with Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting.

That movie launched his career back in 1997 and now, 15 years later, after rehab, and even worse, Gigli, Affleck has reemerged as a director racking up a resume of admirable movies including Gone Baby Gone, The Town and now, Argo, arguably his best film yet.

What is Affleck's latest about?

Based on the true story of a rescue attempt amid the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Argo focuses on Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA "exfiltration" specialist who comes up with a scheme to rescue six embassy workers holed up at the Canadian ambassador’s mansion in Tehran.

With few options on the table, Mendez and his boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) meet with Secretary of State Warren Christopher (Philip Baker Hall), outlining a plan to send Mendez to Iran posing as a film producer from Canada scouting locations for a movie called Argo.

They have only bad options, Cranston explains, and they’re offering their best bad idea.

While the material seems ripe for satirical comedy, Affleck chooses to play it straight, making Argo a thriller instead.

He and first-time writer Chris Terrio, working from information that was declassified in 1997, make the sort of movie that Sidney Lumet might have made in 1980. Thus, we have the high-grain look and the liberal use of zoom lenses to evoke the era.

Terrio deftly plows through what was no doubt mountains of information to carve out a smooth and stream-lined thriller that is deceptively well-paced but light on character and not above stretching the truth in obvious ways for greater dramatic impact.

In fact, ex-CIA agent Mendez has noted how relatively stress-free the operation was, with the hostages openly laughing at a knock-knock joke ending with the fake movie’s title: Argo f**k yourself!

Alan Arkin and John Goodman gleefully play a pair of Hollywood cynics recruited to give the scheme greater ballast. Their scenes provide welcome comic relief, but, along with the overall absurdity of the plan, introduce a tone that sometimes clashes with the tension generated in Tehran.

Tonal issues aside, however, Affleck’s third feature is assured, smart and very entertaining.

Often when actors become directors they demonstrate limited understanding of visual language but elicit stirring performances from their cast, as did Affleck directing Amy Ryan to an Oscar nomination in Gone Baby Gone, and doing the same with Jeremy Renner in The Town.

Through his trio of films, Affleck has consistently tested his limits as a visual storyteller. In The Town, the shootouts and heist sequences are gripping, but it is easy to see the director studying the best as he emulates Michael Mann’s famed shootout from his movie, Heat.

In Argo, Affleck demonstrates consummate filmmaking skills, such as the opening sequence where he builds tension masterfully as the U.S. embassy is overrun by an angry mob.

The audience is placed in the shoes of embassy workers who by now seem used to anti-American protests at their gates. But tension quickly escalates and the staff gets that creeping feeling that today might be different.

By the time they respond, it’s too late. They have become part of a deadly international crisis that will last for 444 days.

With buzz generated from Telluride and Toronto last month, Argo is clearly being positioned for awards season in a year otherwise so thin that That's My Boy might have made the cut -- which is to say that although Argo is not particularly weighty material, it is expertly crafted and a thoroughly enjoyable popcorn movie.

Watch the theatrical trailer for Argo below. The film  opens nationwide on Friday.

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