“Is that your best bad idea?” “That’s the best bad idea I’ve had today!”
So goes one of the many surprisingly funny exchanges between Ben Affleck and Bryan Cranston in Ben’s astonishing, riveting, hugely entertaining and mostly historically accurate movie “Argo.”
This is the true tale of six Americans who managed to escape the U.S. Embassy in Iran during the Shah-toppling revolution of 1979. (Fifty-two other Americans were held hostage at the embassy for 444 days.) The six justifiably nervous people who escaped the wrath of the mobs were holed up at the private residence of the Canadian ambassador and his wife.
“Argo” reveals the hilariously implausible plot to free them. How? To pretend the Americans are Canadian filmmakers and spirit them away after their “film location” duties are complete. The operation is led by CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck). He is both supported and opposed by his boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston – whom you may recognize as the star of AMC’s “Breaking Bad”.)
Maybe any filmmaker could have created something reasonably entertaining from this material. But only Ben Affleck, I think, could have brought forth such a seamless, wildly nerve-wracking, uproarious and amusing crackerjack entertainment.
This is Affleck’s third directorial effort. His first two, “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” were critically acclaimed, but they don’t hold a candle to “Argo.” I have to agree with Ben’s great friend, Matt Damon. He was there at the screening all evening to give Affleck support. He said, “ ‘Argo’ is the greatest thing he’s done yet.”
“Argo” takes its audience on a roller-coaster ride from which one thinks recovery is impossible. The film’s first 10 minutes are astonishingly intense, as the American Embassy is stormed. It appears to be actual footage, but it isn’t.
Then, quickly, we are in Hollywood, where schlocky producers Alan Arkin (absolutely brilliant) and John Goodman (absolutely charming) get on board with the CIA to publicize a “fake movie.” They are going to try to convince the Iranians that such a movie is truly happening. At one point, arguing over casting and cost (of something that will never exist), Arkin snaps, “Listen, if I’m going to make a fake movie, I want it to be a fake hit!”
The back and forth between L.A. yuks and very real terror in Tehran (along with real vintage news clips of people hanging from lamp posts) shouldn’t work. But it does. I have rarely seen such accomplished filmmaking. Certainly not this year, so far. The acting, from top to bottom, is flawless, from Cranston to Victor Garber to Tate Donovan to Chris Messina to Clea DuVall to Zeljko Ivanek to Richard Kind. Every role, no matter how brief, is indelibly played. Affleck, handsomely sporting a dark beard, is rather stoic, but so, too, was the real Mendez. The cinematography is breathtaking. The period aspects of 1979-80 are expertly captured. And the last 15 minutes? Bring oxygen; it is that intense! Yes, of course, some dramatic license is taken – that’s why they call it a movie. Ben Affleck has made a real “movie-movie” that leaves its audience wrung out, exhilarated and misty-eyed. Bravo. Prepare for the Oscar, kid.

Tribune Media Services