September 8, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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At this point, with 3 first-rate films to his name, it’s time to stop remarking on how surprising it is that Ben Affleck is a major American filmmaker and just accept that he is one.  His latest, ARGO, is his best yet, one that has a broader palette of tones and a larger sense of scale than his previous work.

Argo brings truth to the cliche of “stranger than fiction.”  In early 1980, a CIA agent named Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) really did rescue 6 Americans from Iran, after they fled the US Embassy before they could be trapped like the other hostages, and found refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence.  And he did get them out by establishing them, with the help, among others, of Oscar-winning Planet of the Apes make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), as members of a Canadian movie crew scouting locations for an intergalactic science-fiction epic to be called “Argo.”  Even if the details have been goosed up just a bit to provide for some third-act thrills, it’s an amazing story, and Affleck does it justice.

Like a lot of actors turned director (Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, Rob Reiner), Affleck has a straightforward, unadorned style.  Argo, written by Chris Terrio, wastes no time, lucidly and intelligently letting the story speak for itself.  The tale allows for a certain amount of self-mocking Hollywood humor, as Mendez enlists Chambers and (fictionalized) producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to set up the CIA’s fake production company, and its fake outer space adventure.  Goodman and Arkin eat roles like this for breakfast, and Affleck lets them get their big laughs (Arkin is a riot negotiating for the “Argo” script with an agent, and when asked to explain the movie’s plot at a press conference), but he doesn’t linger over them–he’s got other work to do..  The last section of the story is a riveting thriller, taking us step by step through the Americans’ escape route, and even though its narrow escapes are conventional, they’re expertly done.

Affleck has been great with actors from the start, and he has an ensemble full of performers who can deliver:  Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss, Philip Baker Hall as his boss, Kyle Chandler as the White House Chief of Staff, Victor Garber as the Canadian Ambassador, and Tate Donovan and Clea DuVal among the escapees.  The 1980 atmosphere is faithfully but not fetishistically recreated by production designer Sharon Seymour and costume designer Jacqueline West, and the cinematography is by Rodrigo Prieto.   The taut editing, which smoothly glides between Hollywood comedy and Iranian suspense, is by William Goldenberg.

Argo is the movie a lot of people have been waiting for this year, a smart, professional Hollywood product that isn’t about super-heroes or 3D spectacle.  There’s an excellent chance it’ll be part of the Oscar race, and while it’s not an inspired piece of work, it’s a satisfying entertainment from a director Hollywood has increasingly found that it can count on.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."