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TELLURIDE, Colo. — When the lights in the Chuck Jones Theatre went down for the annual patrons screening here, festival co-director Julie Huntsinger quickly introduced Oscar winner Ben Affleck, who in turn introduced his new dramatic thriller Argo, the third feature he has directed. Two hours later, the audience gave a rousing ovation to the movie, which appears to me to be a very solid contender to score a best picture Oscar nomination.
Argo, which chronicles a little-known rescue effort that was mounted by American and Canadian intelligence officials during the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis, also will play at next week’s Toronto International Film Festival before being released by Warner Bros. on Oct. 14. Introducing the film, Affleck told the audience, “You are the first people to see the movie,” before laughingly adding, “the first paying people.” He called it “a labor of love” and said it was “really special” to be able to premiere it at one of the few remaining festivals at which people care about films above all else.
The film manages to be an edge-of-your-seat thriller (“We did suicide missions in the Army that had better odds than this”), a laugh-out-loud comedy (“You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA!”) and a genuine tearjerker. This is in large part because of the strong work of everyone in its large ensemble. The audience also separately applauded when Affleck’s credit appeared — he also stars in the film — and when the names of Oscar winner Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who play key supporting characters, flashed on the screen.
The story at the center of the film was kept classified by both the Canadian and American governments for decades. As it turns out, Hollywood played an integral part in their mission. U.S. officials concluded that their “best bad idea” to get their countrymen out of the country would be to try to convince the Iranians that the six Americans in question were in fact Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for “a $20 million Star Wars rip-off,” so they dispatched one of their own (a bearded Affleck) to go into the country to try to make that happen.
Affleck, who showed tremendous promise as a director with his first two features, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), continues his forward progress with this film, of which he seems as much in command as any of the three. It is authentically grounded in the late 1970s/early 1980s in every possible respect — from the props to the grain and muted color of the film stock with which it was shot, right down to shots of the ’70s-era decayed Hollywood sign and Warner Bros. logo that precedes the film’s opening credits and animated recap of the aforementioned history. In fact, if Argo was screened alongside a Sydney Pollack thriller of that era like Three Days of the Condor (1975), a viewer could be forgiven for thinking both works came from the same filmmaker.
Argo tells one of those stories that sounds almost too absurd to be true, but in a deeply engaging way. I expect the Hollywood community — which loves nothing more than seeing itself depicted in good movies, as demonstrated by the success of The Artist less than a year ago — to like it as much as anyone. I think it could be a solid contender not only for best picture but also for best adapted screenplay (Chris Terrio used an article by Joshuah Bearman as the basis of his script). It has a decent shot at a best actor nom for Affleck and best supporting actor noms for Arkin and Goodman (whose prospects actually might be hurt by the strength of the entire ensemble). And it might well compete for best costume design (Oscar winner Jacqueline West) and original score (perennial Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat).
Interestingly and troublingly, the relationship between the U.S. and Iranian governments is more strained today than at any time since the era in which this film takes place — which should increase interest in the film.
Argo became the first film to screen at this year’s Telluride. The first screening is open only to specially credentialed attendees who are not told what they’re seeing until they are inside the theater. They clammor for seats, though, because the film almost always turns out to be a highly anticipated awards contender; last year, it offered the world premiere of Alexander Payne‘s The Descendants, which went on to score a best picture Oscar nomination.
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