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.
Ambitious high schooler Raya (Rutina Wesley) is sure she's on her way to the Ivy League when she gets into prestigious Seaton Academy. But then her older sister dies of a drug overdose and she's forced to return to the crime-heavy Toronto neighborhood she thought she'd left behind--at least until she can win a scholarship. Fitting back in at home isn't easy; former friends like Michelle (Tre Armstrong) feel betrayed by Raya's "desertion " and Raya herself doesn’t have much patience for their partying and lack of motivation. But then she rediscovers her passion for step dancing and becomes the first girl to join competitive guys' crew JSJ which is led by charismatic Bishop (Dwain Murphy). Before they can win the Step Monster showdown in Detroit though Raya has a lot to learn about teamwork loyalty--and (surprise) herself. Many of the stars of How She Move are newcomers--it's Wesley's first screen role--and they bring a refreshing earnestness to their performances. Raya's story may not be particularly original but Wesley makes her feel like a real girl with real problems. Similarly Armstrong gives Michelle a few more layers than the average "frenemy" character has and Melanie Nicholls-King is sympathetic and believable as Raya's Jamaican immigrant mom Faye who's determined not to lose another daughter to the streets. The male characters aren't quite as well-developed as the women but Murphy is charming as Bishop and Brennan Gademans has some great moments as his brother Quake. "Bad guy" Garvey (Cle Bennett)--a rival step crew leader--is pretty one-note but his gravelly voiced cockiness has its own appeal. All of that said the main attraction of How She Move--which debuted at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival--isn't the acting it's the stepping. Whether the characters are confronting each other in one-on-one "step offs" (which despite their artistic skill are a bit giggle-worthy) or competing in all-out crew competitions their complex rhythmic acrobatic routines are flat-out amazing. Director Ian Iqbal Rashid and cinematographer Andre Pienaar film all of the action in a gritty washed-out style that give it a more sophisticated edge than many MTV films (maybe they should acquire more films in Park City...) which helps you take the characters and their passions as seriously as the movie does. Though it's never hard to guess how Raya's tale will turn out watching How She Move's dancers step their stuff will take your mind off the predictability.