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.
While I certainly don’t want to give away the big “twist ” I can safely say Eagle Eye is all about big bad technology--or the pitfalls of having too much technology at our fingertips and how it can turn into a Big Brother situation. As it goes we meet copy store employee Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) and single mom Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) two strangers who suddenly find themselves in a whole mess of trouble after they receive a mysterious phone call from a woman they have never met. She dictates they carry out a series of dangerous tasks and if they refuse she will either kill them or the ones they love--and of course shows proof when they do. Who is this ominous woman? How can she control cell phones trains traffic lights construction cranes electrical power poles and just about anything else she wants to at any time? And why is she targeting Jerry and Rachel? Ah watch as the web unweaves LaBeouf and Monaghan are two very appealing young actors who both have a lot of potential in their burgeoning careers. Of course LaBeouf is now running the risk of doing too many big-budgeted action movies; he should remember he was once a pretty good kid actor. Monaghan too showed great promise in films such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Gone Baby Gone but has gone the cheap ingénue route with the likes of Made of Honor and The Heartbreak Kid. And now Eagle Eye which unfortunately doesn’t do much to boost their resumes. Still they manage to make the film watchable with the sparks between them. The rest of the cast are fairly wasted however including Rosario Dawson as a tough-nut Air Force investigator and Michael Chiklis as U.S. Defense Secretary. The only other cast member worth watching is Billy Bob Thornton as an FBI agent tracking Jerry and Rachel. He has all the best lines. Director D.J. Caruso who cut his teeth in the thriller department with last year’s sleeper Disturbia goes for the full-action this time--and does a pretty good job considering. It might not be up to the Bourne Ultimatum level but the car chases are exciting and inventive. A giant crane picking up a cop car and tossing it away in a garbage dump is a particularly clever way to dispose of an automobile. But Eagle Eye fails to engage the audience into caring much about the characters because you are too busy trying to figure out what the hell is going on and why these random people are involved. And when you do find out you're still not convinced it was all necessary in the end. Maybe it'll play better on DVD.