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.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Armistead Maupin this haunting albeit slow moving mystery follows the disturbingly eerie twists and turns that unfold in the relationship between a popular late-night radio host Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) who is in the throes of his own personal crisis and a devoted 14 year-old listener named Pete (Rory Culkin) who has written a memoir describing a terrifying childhood filled with physical and sexual abuse. What begins as a long-distance phone relationship the wounded Gabriel soon bonds with the precocious boy as a surrogate father. But things start to get dicey when Gabriel grows more and more suspicious of Pete’s overprotective adopted mother (Toni Collette). Suddenly Gabriel finds himself on a desperate quest to uncover the elusive truth on whether Pete’s stories are for real or more importantly if Pete even exists at all. Many may forget that Williams is a Julliard-trained actor. He can handle emotional range and has done so in films such as Dead Poet's Society and Good Will Hunting which won him his Oscar. Of course we still love it when he acts like a nut. In fact during certain moments in Listener when Williams is on the radio you half expect the funnyman to yell “Good Morning Vietnam!” But of course the 55 year-old Williams has obviously matured and is easily convincing as the low-key Gabriel dealing with the demise of his 10 year relationship with his lover played nicely by Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) as well as trying to unravel this strange mystery which grows more macabre by the minute. Matching Williams' intensity is Collette (Little Miss Sunshine) as Pete’s enigmatic mom Donna who is pretty much the center of all the creepiness. The underrated actress is one of those performers who generally throws vanity aside to dig deep and give honest portrayals no matter how twisted they are. It’s evident The Night Listener is something close to Maupin’s heart having had a similar real-life experience with his ex-partner Terry Anderson and a young devoted fan. The screenplay was adapted by the acclaimed author along with Anderson and Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers)—who takes the helm on this psychological thriller—so it’s no surprise how well they tap into the same nightmarish journey the bestselling page-turner takes you on. Listener explores the nature of lies and how much we are willing to believe them when in an emotional crisis. And much like a great Hitchcock thriller Stettner also keeps you on your toes by peeling away each layer the deeper Gabriel gets involved. After flying to the where Pete is suppose to live things really start to get weird until Gabriel finally asks “What the hell am I doing here?” It’s a very valid question. But that’s sort of the beauty of the film. You’re expecting any manner of bad things to happen but are surprised by the outcome nonetheless.