Halfway through Ben Affleck's Argo, the main characters stage a script reading for a Flash Gordon rip-off they claim to be prepping for the screen. It's 1980, and there are green Wookies, gold-chained slave babes and even a Fu-Manchu-sporting Emperor Ming-type gathered at a table. They hilariously start reading—with terrible delivery—perhaps the most hackneyed post-Star Wars script since, well, Flash Gordon. The result is hilarious.
Then something harsh happens.
The dialogue fades, replaced by violent political speak from the Iranian Revolution, where 52 Americans are being held hostage. This stark juxtaposition perfectly captures the tone of this thriller, a bizarre story of a joint mission between the Canadian government, the CIA and Hollywood to extract six Americans hiding in Tehran by posing as a Canuck film crew on a location shoot.
The insanity of the plan sounds like a recipe for a comic romp, but Affleck is too smart for that. A decade ago, that sentence would have drawn laughs. Over the course of the three films he's directed, however, Affleck has managed to position himself as something of an auteur in the Michael Mann mold: slick, concise and able to tell complex stories in a straightforward manner, with subtly kinetic camera flourishes punctuating brilliant performances.
If The Town was Affleck's Heat, then Argo is his The Insider. From its opening sequence of rioters storming the U.S. Embassy in Tehran to its white-knuckle finale, this is a film where suspense is rendered not through violence but emotional gravity. Affleck never resorts to cheap tricks, instead allowing human interaction and paranoia to do the work. The results are staggering.
It's not all heavy-handed. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are fantastically funny as Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel, respectively, who insist if they're going to film the fake movie Argo, it's going to be a fake hit. Bryan Cranston also injects his trademark charm as Affleck's boss.
Comedic moments and charismatic performances balance out what could have been a rather dour affair. By not pandering sentimentality, Affleck has managed a task that, like its subject, seems impossible: He's taken what others would have turned into farce and emerged with one of the year's best pictures. R.
Critic's Grade: A-
SEE IT: Argo opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Oak Grove, City Center, Evergreen, Hilltop, Tigard and Wilsonville.