Film Friday: 'Argo' directed by Ben Affleck

By Daniel S Levine,
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Ben Affleck has directed a Best Picture winner. It still sounds a little weird, since it was just days ago that the Academy gave the film the biggest award in the industry. Argo was released back in October and grossed over $100 million, but it never really took off as a Best Picture favorite until the awards season got under way. Oddly enough, the fact that Affleck didn't get nominated for Best Director was the catalyst or at least it seemed that way. As win after win piled up for Argo, it looked like there was no way any other movie could earn Best Picture. I'm not convinced that Argo really was the Best Picture of 2012, but I still enjoyed every minute of it.

Argo is about the rescue of the six American hostages who managed to slip out of the U.S. embassy as the Iranian students stormed the building in 1979. The group of six made it to the house of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), where they stayed for weeks before the government finally started formulating a plan to rescue them. After bouncing around silly ideas, CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with the “best bad idea,” as his superior (Bryan Cranston) calls it. He will set up a fake movie company to make a fake Canadian film in Iran, using it as cover to get the hostages out.

Of course, the plan isn't immediately approved, but Mendez gets a chance to prove it could work and goes out to Hollywood. There, he meets with Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who enlists producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, playing a character who didn't exist in reality) to help. With everything set up, Mendez gets the go-ahead and flies to Iran.

There were two great thrillers nominated for Best Picture this year – Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. I still believe Zero Dark Thirty was the better film. It's a slow-burning, precise picture that takes its time to get to its climax. The audience sees what worked and what didn't during the search for Osama Bin Laden. It's a shame that the politicians torpedoed the film's chances because it was winning critics' awards left and right in December.

Argo is on the other side of the thriller spectrum. It's quick, incredibly fast paced. After a year that featured people complaining about length of movies, Argo is a breath of fresh air, clocking in at exactly 120 minutes. If there is one thing this film gets 100 percent right, it's the editing by William Goldenberg (who also co-edited Zero Dark Thirty, so he actually beat himself for the Oscar). Editing is what makes some of the film's most thrilling moments heart-racing and exciting, it's why the van ride to the bazaar or why just waiting at the airport check-in desk is as entertaining as it is. You also have to give a hand to writer Chris Terrio for keeping the film exciting with a touch of humor.

However, there is a reason why Argo didn't take home any acting awards and was only nominated for one. Affleck was never considered for an acting nod, since his performance as Mendez is muted. For the character, it works since he is the puppet master behind the scenes (at least in Affleck's version of events) and I suppose it's a testament to Affleck's skill that he let other actors out-perform him. In every scene, he allows his co-stars to take over, not forcing his film's focus on himself.

There is one performance I wish was better singled out: Bryan Cranston. Every time he was on screen, he stole the show. I'm not sure how Oscar campaigning works, but I can't understand why his performance wasn't praised like Alan Arkin's was.

The Academy has prided itself in nominating daring movies for Best Picture. But so far this decade, its members have shown that they just can't take the adventurous leap to actually give those movies the award. The King's Speech is a crowd-pleasing biopic, while The Artist - even if it is silent – boils down to a Hollywood love story. Argo continues that trend and is even the second Best Picture winner in which Hollywood itself plays a major role. It is a fine, enjoyable thriller, but time will tell if it's a movie that will hold up in the following years.

Also, Argo is the second straight movie with John Goodman. So, advice to Hollywood executives: If you want to win Best Picture, find a role for Goodman.

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