Ben Affleck in "Argo." (Keith Bernstein / Warner…)
Three movies into his directing career, Ben Affleck has reached back to the 1970s with the political thriller "Argo." Based on the true story of a daring, outlandish CIA rescue mission during the Iranian hostage crisis in which the agency disguised six U.S. Embassy employees as members of a Hollywood film crew, "Argo" is full of period details like oversize glasses, vintage office equipment and a even a Serpico-like beard for Affleck, who also stars as CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez.
Affleck's throwback approach seems to extend beyond production design as well, with the film's old-fashioned combination of smarts and suspense earning favorable reviews and comparisons to the work of Sydney Pollack ("Three Days of the Condor") and Alan J. Pakula ("The Parallax View," "All the President's Men").
The Times' Kenneth Turan writes that "Argo" recalls a time "when Hollywood regularly turned out smart and engaging films that crackled with energy and purpose." Affleck handles his double duties well, delivering a "reined in" performance while he "easily orchestrates this complex film with 120 speaking parts as it moves from inside-the-Beltway espionage thriller to inside Hollywood dark comedy to gripping international hostage drama, all without missing a step." Affleck is aided by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's "beautifully textured shots" and "the brisk, propulsive editing of William Goldenberg."
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The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern agrees that Affleck has come into his own as a filmmaker, writing, "as director and star of 'Argo,' he has deployed a studio's full-scale resources on an intrinsically dramatic story, and the results are nothing less than sensational." Morgenstern also commends "Argo's" Hollywood subplot, which dramatizes the involvement of actual filmmakers in the rescue mission. John Goodman "brings his droll wit to the role of [real-life Hollywood makeup artist] John Chambers," and Alan Arkin steals his scenes as the sharp-tongued has-been movie director Lester Siegel (a composite character).
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis calls "Argo" "a smart, jittery thriller" with a "a doozy of a story." Working from a script by Chris Terrio (based on Mendez's book "The Master of Disguise" and Joshuah Bearman's 2007 Wired article "The Great Escape"), Affleck "embellishes the official story without eviscerating it." He also displays a touch for pacing, "easing from the high anxiety of the opener … into something looser, mellower and funny" in the Hollywood scenes, which provide an effective counterpoint to "the increasingly tense, perilous situation in Tehran."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times finds "Argo" to be "both spellbinding and surprisingly funny," with many of the laughs coming courtesy of Goodman and Arkin." Supporting turns from Bryan Cranston, playing the CIA chief who signs off on the mission, and Victor Garber, playing the Canadian ambassador, also pay dividends. "The craft in this film," Ebert says, "is rare."
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That's not to say "Argo" is scoring perfect marks: LA Weekly's Karina Longworth suggests it's a bit on-the-nose. She writes, "As director, [Affleck] has made a fun, tidy entertainment that hits its beats a little too loudly and cleanly. … [I]f anything, Affleck is concerned with clockwork to a fault. The script is full of temporal straw men, gimmicky turns and roadblocks designed to ratchet tension at regular intervals, as well as impossible-to-miss symbolism."