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.
On the eve of his first novel's publication San Francisco writer Amir (Khalid Abdalla) is called back to the Middle East for a chance to make childhood wrongs right. An extended flashback set in late-'70s Kabul Afghanistan introduces young Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) the bookish son of a forceful respected businessman (Homayoun Ershadi) who despairs over his son's tendency to let his loyal friend/servant Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) fight his battles for him. On the fateful day of the citywide kite-fighting tournament Amir's inability to stand up to bullies has heartbreaking consequences for both him and Hassan. Soon after Amir and his father flee the invading communists eventually ending up in California. Time passes but Amir's guilt doesn't fade--so when a long-lost family friend offers him the chance to redeem himself he returns to the city of his birth to face many difficult truths. One of the best things The Kite Runner has going for it is its cast of virtual unknowns; since none of them are familiar faces to American audiences it's much easier to become wholly absorbed in their story. Abdalla is earnest and solemn as grown-up Amir. Both haunted by and determined to forget about his terrible betrayal he's often hesitant and unsure of himself (except when he meets the woman who will become his wife and courts her in a series of charming scenes). More charismatic is Ershadi who imbues Amir's father with the perfect mix of honor ferocity and sentiment. And top honors go to the boys who play young Amir and Hassan. Making their screen debut (along with co-star Elham Ehsas who's coldly menacing as bully Assef) Ebrahimi and Mahmidzada are natural genuine performers who make their characters' complicated friendship both believable and heart-wrenching. With a resume that includes the tragic (Monster's Ball) the sentimental (Finding Neverland) and the surreal (Stranger Than Fiction) it's clear that Marc Forster isn't wedded to any particular style or genre. Which is fitting since The Kite Runner is so many things at once: a coming-of-age story a sweet romance a gripping war drama. Forster does a good job of balancing the story's many needs staying faithful to Khaled Hosseini's novel while also streamlining it to keep things moving. As in the book the movie's glimpses of a (relatively) liberal prosperous '70s Afghanistan are particularly compelling; audiences who only think of the country in the context of the ultra-conservative Taliban rule (and subsequent U.S. occupation) will be entranced. Later when Amir returns home to find fear despair and dusty emptiness it's impossible not to mourn right along with him.