I genuinely enjoy going to movies -- I know, not a newsflash -- but there are those "regular" moviegoing experiences which happen 99 percent of the time, and then there are the ones where I can feel, as soon as the lights go down and the opening credits roll, that there's a confidence in every part of the filmmaking. I sink into my seat a little deeper at movies like that, not out of concern for where we are going, but rather understanding that I am in the hands of professionals. That kind of confident professionalism I wish from every film I see, and when it materializes, my movie-loving heart warms just a little for it.
And I have to say that director Ben Affleck's "Argo" -- from the opening moment that the "Circle W" logo designed by Saul Bass that was the Warner Brothers corporate symbol in the 70s and 80s powers on to the screen -- is one of the most confidently-produced motion pictures I've seen in some time, and I can't wait to see it again. It is a supremely-constructed and tightly-wound Swiss watch of a dramatic thriller; without a doubt, one of the best films of 2012.
"Argo" is based on the startling true story of six Americans who escaped Iranian captivity during the 1979-81 hostage crisis in that Middle Eastern country, and the people who developed the borderline-insane idea that got them home. Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), a leading exfiltration expert for the CIA, is called in by his boss (Bryan Cranston) to help craft strategy to rescue the men and women who -- on the day the U.S. embassy was overrun by enraged protesters -- were somehow able to sneak out of the building, slip onto a side street and make their way to the home of the unfailingly polite Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber).
Mendez is a mess in his personal life -- drinking too much, sleeping in his clothes and estranged from his wife and young son -- but the go-to expert while at work. Top officials at the State Department are stumped for any idea for a rescue mission (the best they come up with involves providing bicycles and maps for a 300-mile trek), but Mendez develops one: "They're the Canadian crew for a science-fiction film," he pitches, which is later described by his boss as "the best bad idea we've got."
Mendez goes to Los Angeles to meet with a make-up artist named John Chambers (played with gusto by John Goodman) who explains that Mendez needs a lot of help to establish a cover, most critically, the paper trail to back him up. That means he has to have a real script with a real budget, real production offices with real phone numbers and real people on the other end, and a real -- meaning well-known -- producer. ("Why can't you just make me the producer?" Mendez asks Chambers at one point. "You're an associate producer at best," Chambers replies, a twinkle in his eye.)
Chambers connects him with a one-time major Hollywood producer, now in the twilight of his career (Alan Arkin, in another sly, knowing performance), who volunteers his skills. The duo quickly proceeds to train the CIA operative in the in-and-outs of show business, all in the service of attempting to rescue six increasingly nervous people from a situation that grows more and more tense as time twists away.
The best thing about "Argo" is its straightforward, even hard-boiled, presentation. There's comic relief here (and thank goodness for both Arkin and Goodman), but the movie doesn't turn the Hollywood scenes into goofy, out-of-step comedy; there are lives at stake, and the movie remembers that, even while the audience is going behind the scenes of a staged reading of the B-at-best-movie script. (In fact, one of the most tense scenes of the whole movie involves the Arkin and Goodman characters getting stuck across a backlot from the fake movie's production offices while a stunt fight is being filmed -- in silence -- in front of them.)
Affleck is good here as an actor -- his opaque-eyed Mendez clearly carries his demons around with him -- but his true achievement in "Argo" is as its director. This is a serious, polished film that any moviemaker would be proud to call his or her own. If Affleck's not nominated for the Best Director trophy at the Oscars early next year (and the film isn't nominated for a raft of additional prizes that night, including Best Picture, too), then nobody should be. Four stars (out of four).
Content advisory: "Argo" is rated R for language and some violent images. This is a grown-up thriller about life-and-death, so the grown-ups talk the way you'd expect them to, and frankly, shouldn't they? There isn't any really graphic violence, but the ratcheting tension throughout might leave you a little bruised and breathless.