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Review: Blast from the Past (Argo)

The economy is slow, the President is embattled, and a crisis in the Middle East has sparked a panic. The year? 1979. Nothing ever really changes does it?

Hostages are held captive in the Embassy, elsewhere, six workers sit in a the house of a Canadian Ambassador. The CIA is bereft of ideas on how to get them out of the country. Exit strategy maestro Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) has been called in to assess the situation. The extraction options suggested thus far have been a teaching program, vegetable growers and bicycling to Iraq. Understandably, Tony is not pleased.

The Company asks a lot of its faculty and Tony has felt the brunt. He rarely sees his wife and son, at most he gets a phone call every few days a week. He saves lives every day and yet can say nothing. During one of his few phone calls with his son, an idea blossoms: a fake b-movie production.

First things first, they'll need a crew to make their fake film. John Chambers (John Goodman) is another asset of the C.I.A. Tony has worked with previously and knows the ins and outs of Tinseltown. In the better part of a week Tony needs to be able to blend in with every schmoozing producer there is if he is to convince Iranian officials that Argo is a real film. Producer of yesteryear classics, Lester Siegel (a comic Alan Arkin) will show him the way.

Ben Affleck has only three directorial features to his name, but he has very quickly transitioned himself into the upper echelon of elite helmers. The mixture of equal parts humor and tension throughout Argo is the result of a craftsman who knows his trade. His handling of ensembles in Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo is reminiscent of Robert Altman.

Every scene, every take and every climax is extracted with precision and done with the full picture in mind. It should come as no surprise that supporting characters like Goodman and Arkin hand in capable turns as Hollywood veterans as well as a chameleon-like Bryan Cranston as Tony's supervisor, Jack O'Donnell, a man who knows how to bend the rules at Langley.

More impressive is that when Mr. Affleck takes the lead he has no problem relegating himself to the background when it calls for it. Understated lead performances are a rarity in the Oscar-bait of winter, but Affleck knows exactly what it takes to play a man like Tony Mendez. A cool smile and before you turn around, he's gone.

Argo sneaks up and floors the audience unexpectedly, much like the long con of convincing the entire world that a sci-fi picture in Tehran was anything but what the trade sheets suggested.

***1/2 out of ****

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