With each outing in his evolving filmmaking career actor-turned-director Ben Affleck has amped up the scope. Gone Baby Gone was a character drama woven into a hard-boiled mystery. The Town saw Affleck dabble in action pulling off bank heists many compared to the expertise of Heat. In Argo the director pulls off his most daring effort melding one part caper comedy and two parts edge-of-your-seat political thriller into an exhilarating theatrical experience.
At the height of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 anti-Shah militants stormed the U.S. embassy and captured 52 American hostages. Six managed to escape the raid finding refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home. Within hours the militants began a search for the missing Americans sifting through shredded paperwork for even the smallest bit of evidence. Under pressure by the ticking clock the CIA worked quickly to formulate a plan to covertly rescue the six embassy workers. Despite a lengthy list of possibilities only Tony Mendez (Affleck) had a plan just enticing enough to unsuspecting Iranian officials to work: the CIA would fake a Hollywood movie shoot.
There's nothing in Argo or Affleck's portrayal of Mendez that would tell you the technical operations officer has the imagination to conjure his master plan — Affleck perhaps to differentiate himself from the past plays his character with so much restraint he looks dead in the eyes — but when the Hollywood hijinks swing into full motion so does Argo. Mendez hooks up with Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to convince all of Hollywood that their sci-fi blockbuster "Argo " is readying for production. With enough promotional material concept art and press coverage Mendez and his team can convince the Iranian government they're a legit operation. A location scout in Tehran will be their method of extracting the bunkered down escapees.
Without an interesting lead to draw us in Affleck lets his eclectic ensemble do the heavy lifting. For the most part it works. Argo is basically two movies — Goodman and Arkin lead the Ocean's 11-esque half and Affleck takes the reigns when its time to get the six — another who's who of character actors including Tate Donovan Clea Duvall Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane — through the terrifying security of the Iranian airport. Arkin steals the show as a fast talking Hollywood type complete with year-winning catchphrase ("ArGo f**k yourself!) while McNairy adds a little more humanity to the spy mission when his character butts heads with Mendez. The split lessens the impact of each section but the tension in the escape is so high so taut that there's never a moment to check out.
Reality is on Affleck's side his camera floating through crowds of protestors and the streets of Tehran — a warscape where anything can happen. Each angle he chooses heightens the terror which starts to close in on the covert escape as they drift further and further from their homebase. Argo is a complete package with the '70s production design knowing when to play goofy (the fake movie's wild sci-fi designs) and when to remind us that problems took eight more steps to fix then they do today. Alexandre Desplat's score finds balance in haunting melodies and energetic pulses.
Part of Argo's charm is just how unreal the entire operation really was. To see the men and women involved go through with a plan they know could result in death. It's a suspenseful adventure and while there's not much in the way of character to cling to the visceral experience tends to be enough.
In this era of remakes and reboots writer-director J.J. Abrams is here to introduce a third option: the throwback. Though ostensibly an original work his new film Super 8 is meticulously designed to appear as otherwise. Its intent which it makes no effort to hide is to mine our nostalgia for the early oeuvre of Steven Spielberg to invoke our affection for films like E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even Jaws. Should Mr. Spielberg be concerned? Hardly: He’s complicit in the scheme. The presence of his name atop the poster and his production company Amblin in the opening credits doesn’t just bestow credibility; it embeds the association in our memory making the bridge between what is and what was that much shorter.
Super 8 is set in 1979 – a creative decision which affords a measure of built-in nostalgia and allows the filmmakers to sidestep modern narrative nuisances like cell phones and Google – in the fictional working class community of Lillian Ohio. Our hero our embodiment of those prized (and I believe copyrighted) Spielbergian virtues of youthful innocence and wonder and unbounded curiosity is Joe Lamb (wonderful newcomer Joel Courtney) a polite earnest boy made all the more sympathetic by the recent death of his mother a steelworker in a workplace accident. Joe’s home life is rather dreary – his father Deputy Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is too immersed in grief to be much of a parent – so he jumps at the chance to spend the summer with his mates shooting a DIY zombie movie.
They gather one night at a local train station to shoot a key scene for which they’ve pulled off the minor coup of convincing a pretty classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the female lead. But the camera has scarcely started to roll when a passing train collides head-on with a pickup truck. resulting in perhaps the most over-the-top train crash I’ve ever seen on film an interminable sequence of ever-escalating vehicular carnage that would make the Final Destination folks gasp.
The driver of the truck that caused the crash is revealed to be the kids’ science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman). Bloodied but still breathing he delivers them an ominous warning: “Do not speak of this. They will kill you.” We learn who “they” are soon enough when hordes of soldiers members of a top-secret branch of the Air Force descend upon the crash site to comb the wreckage.
Shortly thereafter the town is beset by strange unexplained phenomena. Engines disappear from cars. Dogs flee en masse. Worst of all townsfolk are vanishing abductees of a creature glimpsed only in shadow and yet utterly terrifying nonetheless. We need not see the monster to know its fearsomeness: All of the scare scenes are expertly choreographed by Abrams the score shot and sound design fine-tuned for maximum menace.
Chaos and panic spread. Believing the mysterious events and the train crash to be related Joe and his pals decide to mount their own investigation. With each successive clue they gather the implications of the conspiracy become clearer and they are soon on the verge of a revelation that will change their lives – and indeed the world – forever.
Super 8’s genre spread is staggering. The film is equal parts sci-fi epic conspiracy thriller creature feature coming-of-age drama and teen comedy. (You can even add “zombie flick” if you include the film-within-a-film.) The mish-mash isn’t so much a problem in the first half of the film – Abrams is such a gifted storyteller that he handles massive tone shifts with almost laughable ease – but as the story gathers steam it has more and more difficulty reconciling its disparate elements. More than once in the third act does Super 8 teeter on the edge of Shyamalanism only to pull back at the last moment.
The film is surprisingly affecting but never in a cynical or manipulative way. (This is a minor miracle.) Abrams’ secret weapon in this regard – and easily the film’s best feature – is his cast of child actors who are universally superb. Their interactions feel genuine their comic rapport natural and unforced. Fanning in particular is wondrous. At this point calling her a “child actor” feels somehow belittling as her talent easily outpaces that of the majority of her adult counterparts.
Their efforts are largely betrayed by an ending that feels false. A hasty and belated attempt is made to turn the creature into a sympathetic figure followed by a denouement drenched in artificial sentiment with smiles and hugs and assurances both stated and implied that everything is going to be all right from now on. It’s an ending that Spielberg might have been able to pull off but Abrams is no Spielberg. Not yet.