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Argo a taut thriller with Oscar in its sights
Afflecks true story blends drama, humor with a deft touch
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Ben Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, center, in "Argo," a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. - photo by Claire Folger

Argo’

Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Victor Garber

Rated: R, for language and some violent images

Runtime: 2 hours

Bottom line: One of the year’s best

“Argo” pulls off several amazing feats.

It’s based on a true story, which always creates the risk that nothing in the film will be surprising. But even though the story is set within a defining moment in modern American and Iranian history, most of us are completely unaware of it.

“Argo” is based on an article journalist Joshuah Bearman published in Wired magazine in 2007 called “The Great Escape,” which tells the formerly classified story of how CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) spirited six Americans out of Iran during the hostage crisis by pretending they were the crew for a science fiction movie.

The story, unknown outside of CIA circles until President Bill Clinton declassified it, is as bizarre as it is fascinating. It’s also an extremely difficult story to tell.

On one hand, this is heavy drama territory. If the mission goes wrong, Mendez and these six innocent employees of the American embassy will die. And since this is a true story, the filmmakers had to handle it with the proper sensitivity.

It’s also politically and historically treacherous ground for a movie to cover. The backdrop is a crisis in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days that spanned the years 1979 to 1981.

That crisis continues to define U.S.-Iran relations even unto this day, and given the current tenor of those relations and the recent terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya, a poor choice in dialogue or imagery could have real world consequences.

But any even-handed assessment of that crisis must recognize that the U.S. made an indefensible mistake in harboring the Shah of Iran, which the movie acknowledges. On the other hand, it would be just as indefensible if the movie didn’t show the violence inflicted by militants during the Iranian revolution.

Meanwhile, those of us old enough to have lived through the Iran hostage crisis may remember the historical forces that lead to that moment, but many moviegoers do not. So “Argo” begins with a brief but impressively coherent summary of what lead to the incident.

On the other hand, viewed outside of its political context, this is, as one character calls it, “theatre of the absurd.”

The very idea of freeing a small band of Americans who are hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador by pretending they are a movie crew scouting locations for a “Star Wars” knockoff is funny. The movie would have failed if it didn’t also capitalize on the comedic absurdity of the situation.

Yet how does one meld these dramatic and comedic elements into one movie?

This is the brilliance of “Argo.” And yes, it is genuinely brilliant.

Affleck, who both stars and directs, and his screenwriter Chris Terrio balance all of these perilous and conflicting aspects of the story into a film that is sometimes hilarious (especially when John Goodman and Alan Arkin are on screen), sometimes suspenseful and thoroughly riveting.

It’s a tense thriller, yet it doesn’t rely on heavy-handed action sequences. Affleck and Terrio were wise enough to know that the story itself provides ample drama and tension, so they don’t force it.

During the comedic scenes, the filmmakers continue to just play the situation, so it doesn’t become disrespectful, either.

The only black eye on the film is the credit sequence. They go to great lengths to assure the audience that the whole story is true, which is fine. But it’s also the only part of the film that could be accused of playing politics.

“Argo” is an outstanding accomplishment for Affleck. The once-maligned actor has grown into not only one of Hollywood’s most reliable, bankable leading men, but also one of its most capable directors. And this is possibly his tombstone film.

“Argo” will compete for end-of-the-year awards. It’s only mid-October, but we officially have an Oscar contender coming to theaters this week.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.

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