Ben Affleck may not be the easiest guy to root for. Between his meteoric rise from indie actor to A-lister, his high profile relationships with some of the most beautiful women in the world, and his Oscar win for his first produced screenplay, it's not like he needs the help. So when Affleck did a pretty bang up job on his first directing try Gone Baby Gone and then just missed out on an Oscar nom for his second feature The Town, his status as golden boy looked pretty secure. With his latest picture Argo, the golden boy makes a real case for a golden statue. This is a nearly flawless movie that will absolutely be in the Oscar picture. Suddenly Affleck finds himself as one of the best directors working in Hollywood today. Dude, stop showing off.
Set during the 1980 Iran hostage crisis, the film starts with a very well executed history lesson on what caused the revolution and why the Iranians were pissed off at the U.S. about it. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the real-life CIA agent who was charged with helping six escaped hostages flee an Iran where guards stalk the airports looking to execute escaping Americans. To do this, Mendez invents an elaborate cover story that casts the hostages as Canadian filmmakers preparing to shoot a Hollywood blockbuster in Tehran. But to sell it, he's going to need a lot of help.
This brings us to Argo's greatest asset; it has the strongest ensemble cast of the year, hands down. John Goodman and Alan Arkin play the Hollwood producers that help legitimize the project (and give Affleck a few too many opportunities for inside Hollywood jokes). Chris Messina and Bryan Cranston shine as fellow CIA cronies. Clea DuVall and Rory Cochrane are excellent as the hiding hostages and so is Victor Garber as the Canadian diplomat who gives them asylum. Finally, Scoot McNairy gives one of his very best in a string of excellent recent performances as the hostage foil who isn't sure whether Mendez should be trusted.
Even with such a great cast, there was still plenty of work left for Affleck to tell this fascinating story in a thrilling way. Boy does he succeed and Chris Terrio's script and William Goldenberg's editing deserve plenty of the credit. The pacing of the film is perfect with just enough exposition, comedy in the right places, and about the most suspenseful third act that you could hope for.
The period production work is also flawless. Big wide establishing shots of Los Angeles and Tehran look pulled straight out of 1980. Affleck seems to be begging sharp eyed anachronism spotters to give it their best shot. It certainly doesn't appear like they'll have much luck.
In a year that's shaping up to have some strong awards contenders, Argo is at the head of the pack. If there was a Best Ensemble Oscar, it would already be on the shelf. With its A-list pedigree, patriotic story, and inside Hollywood elements, the movie looks like the perfect storm. And that's just what golden boy Ben Affleck needs, isn't it? More freakin' praise.
Review originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2012. Argo opens wide across the U.S. and Canada today. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.