Forty years ago, Argo would have been an easy film to overrate; now, the reverse is true. Over the course of three films, Ben Affleck has emerged as an exceptionally solid, resolutely unspectacular director, the kind whose level of understated craft should be a requirement rather than an aspiration. Things being as they are, however, Argo is an unexpected treat, a cracking true(ish) story whose cast is replete with great character actors: Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Chris Messina, Bob Gunton and Richard Kind, and that’s just for starters. Affleck takes the lead as a CIA ex-filtration expert whose job is to smuggle a half-dozen American embassy workers out of locked-down Tehran in 1979, a largely unknown offshoot of the contemporary hostage crisis. The plan — an absurdity arrived at after anything more plausible has fallen through — is for Affleck to enter the country as the second-rung producer of a Hollywood sci-fi movie looking to shoot in Iran, and the rest of the Americans to pose as the film’s crew, a ruse that involves generating ample publicity for the bogus production. There are soft in-jokes about the parallel prevalence of bullshit in the movie industry and covert intelligence, lots of scenes with men in pointy-collared shirts and scruffy beards involved in tense dialogue exchanges — nothing earth-shattering, but enough for a high-level diversion of a kind presently all too rare. Divorce it from awards-season hype, and Argo holds up fine: There’s no need to pretend it’s something it’s not, when what it is works just fine.
Directed by Ben Affleck, Argo is an unexpected treat, a cracking true(ish) story whose cast is replete with great character actors, including Bryan Cranston and John Goodman.
City Paper Grade: B+
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