Movie review: ‘Argo’ in line for Academy gold

Argo” is going to win best picture — that is, if the studios play their marketing cards smartly and refrain from pushing too hard before the end of the year.  This is not because it is the best movie of the year, but it is a movie that Academy voters can agree on.  It is suspenseful, has a good ensemble cast decked out in 70s hair and, in part, it details a scenario of Hollywood helping rescue hostages in Iran.

Ben Affleck has been steadily building up his directing chops with previous features “Gone Baby Gone” and “‘The Town.” In leaving contemporary Boston behind in “Argo,” he has created his most assured movie yet.  The movie is consistently engaging, from its washed out 70s look to its fluid, precisely orchestrated camera movements.  The first 20 minutes — during which the U.S. embassy in Iran is stormed by protesters — is brilliantly conceived.

For the rest of the movie, Affleck tends to shower attention on himself — though his performance does not become showy or obnoxious.  Bryan Cranston and John Goodman show up in brief, underwritten parts, but the only one who is allowed to steal the show is Alan Arkin’s cranky movie producer.  When Tony Mendez (Affleck) pitches the idea of rescuing six embassy employees who escaped the hostage crisis by having them pretend to be a movie crew, Arkin’s Lester Siegel gives him a cynic’s guide to Hollywood.

Tony Mendez is a fairly typical career type.  He’s separated from his wife, he’s endlessly reassuring and determined and he always appears exhausted.  The way Affleck approaches the era and the material recalls Zodiac because he avoids glamorizing most of the characters and plot, finding suspense in Chris Terrio’s script without inventing it.  The only verbally clever characters are the Hollywood types, which may be the movie’s biggest stretch.

Affleck largely avoids pigeonholing any one group in the movie, most crucially the Iranians. “Argo” has the immediacy of being shot on location (especially in a tense fake location tour in a market that quickly escalates), but it never overtly vilifies the culture like so many evening news broadcasts.  It is not a penetrating window into it like last year’s, “A Separation” because Affleck attempting that wouldn’t fall under the bounds of artistic license.

Though the “Argo” mission was declassified by President Clinton in 1997, the movie’s timing fits, as Iran is present almost daily in the news.  Affleck’s smart handling of the material prevents it from being some sort of American propaganda.  Mendez is a man who exfiltrates people from dangerous situations.  He’s not James Bond or Jason Bourne, but rather a smart, semi-pudgy spy with intelligence and a hell of a lot of courage.

Grade: B