In the nick of time: Argo

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When did Ben Affleck get interesting? Somewhere around his indie turn in the film Hollywoodland, about George Reeves, the ill-fated star of Golden Age TV’s Superman? Or was it when The Town demonstrated he could act and direct? Prior to that, I wasn’t sure he could do either, and colossal turkeys like Pearl Harbor or his fling with Jennifer Lopez didn’t help matters. Honestly, he always seemed like a posturing, stiff, preening phony to me.

But interesting he is now, and further evidence arrived this fall in the form of Argo, again directed by and starring Affleck.

Not sure why it took us over two months to finally see this film, but I’m glad we did…and in the perfect setting, actually. Ann Arbor’s State Theatre looks like it last saw a decorator (and possibly cleaning crew) around the era in which the film is set, so let me say, I felt totally immersed in a grungy, claustrophobic 1970s vibe.

Affleck, a fellow Gen X survivor, nails the Me Decade’s ugly, clunky, chunky style and twitchy social anxiety. I haven’t felt this nerve-wracked in a film about strangers in a strange land since Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek’s Missing over 30 years ago.

As most of you already know, the film, set during the Iran hostage crisis, tracks an ultimately successful CIA operation to smuggle out six Americans, purporting to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars rip-off.

I can vividly recall watching the release of the other 44 hostages on the TV in our upstairs bedroom when I was a kid. I can still see the grainy footage in my mind’s eye as I barely could comprehend what those people had gone through for nearly a year and a half.

Affleck must have been watching too because he expertly captures that free-floating anxiety of lives in peril, but balanced with a more postmodern understanding that Americans aren’t always the heroes in every story. A thoughtfully done prologue makes quite clear that we created much of the mess in the first place.

Affleck is great as the purposeful ringleader of the operation and is buoyed up by great character turns from Alan Arkin and John Goodman as the film’s sole comic relief, a couple of charmingly smarmy Hollywood types in on the game. Also, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, and Kyle Chandler deliver credible and at times compelling depictions of well-meaning folks caught up in the intrigue, be they CIA, Canadian diplomat, hostage, or state department.

My only quibbles are with a few of the actors portraying the six Americans in hiding – actors who just didn’t seem too darn convincing, despite their corduroy jackets, over-sized glasses, and unconditioned ’70s ‘dos. At some level, we as audience should worry about them through some self-identification, but the actors here seemed neither terribly distraught nor for that matter very likable…so I kinda forgot that I was supposed to care about them every now and again.

I will also say that I wasn’t too invested in Affleck’s conflicted-near-divorce-loving-father subplot. The kid was cute and his movie wife seemed nice, but it all just felt a bit too trite and conventional, in the midst of an otherwise propulsive and substantial film.

Regardless, the machine of the film and the story of the folks doing the rescuing carry the day. Even knowing how the story turns out, Affleck’s expert pacing makes this one a true nail-biter.  Yup, Ben, you are officially interesting…congratulations!