The last few minutes of Ben Affleck's political thriller 'Argo' are the most intense and suspenseful moments in recent film memory, and in a story that slowly builds in tension and uncertainty, that's exactly how they should be. In those final moments, as six U.S. diplomats nervously try to board a plane during the Iranian hostage crisis, we want the viewing experience to be as nerve-wracking and edge-of-your-seat maddening as possible. The group includes CIA operative Tony Mendez, played terrifically by a somber Affleck himself, who planned the best bad idea the government could devise at the time. As the Swissair flight begins to close its doors and prepare to take off, the group is still trying to convince a checkpoint that they are a Canadian film crew on a location scouting trip for a 'Star Wars' ripoff.
If you're familiar with the real events on which Chris Terrio's screenplay is based, then the outcome should be no surprise. And even if you're learning about this small tidbit in the history of U.S.-Canadian relations for the first time, the way in which the action unfolds remains standard procedure for the genre. With assistance from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and editor William Goldenberg, Affleck never deviates from the classic Hollywood methods for creating tension and suspense. And frankly, the film is all the better for it. I would even go so far as to suggest that that's the reason this film works so superbly as popcorn entertainment.
We walk away from 'Argo' feeling awesomely satisfied and exceedingly entertained. Structurally, Terrio's script is practically perfect, albeit with a great deal of creative license. From the start, as Iranian militants storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran, tensions are high, with staff members scrambling desperately to destroy documents while arguing about an escape plan. From there, we move speedily from one conflict to the next, adding to an already overwhelming state of affairs, and ultimately erupting in a dramatic climax that leaves you gripping your chair's armrests as your eyes bulge from anxiety.
Sitting in the director's chair for the third time, Affleck depicts the action with incredible precision and great attention to the smallest detail while keeping the pace hurried and frenzied. Following the success of 'Gone Baby Gone' and 'The Town,' Affleck seems perfectly comfortable behind the camera, proving himself an adept and proficient filmmaker. With 'Argo,' he confidently surpasses his previous work by demonstrating his technical skill — his talent for framing the image for the best suspenseful result. The political thriller is essentially all about craftsmanship, about constructing suspense and sustaining it in spite of viewer expectations and knowledge of the outcome. The aforementioned airport sequence, with its variety of minor conflicts and parallel action, reveals Affleck's skill for tuning it just right. It doesn't matter if we already know the outcome; we want to see it unfold before our eyes.
'Argo' is so well-crafted that we don't even notice — or perhaps care — that the film ultimately brings nothing new to the table. Clearly demonstrating his skill behind the camera, and doing a remarkable job blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Affleck keeps his audience's attention constantly focused on the question of "will they or won't they?" In fact, it's a downright shame he did not receive an Oscar nomination, and the Academy should honestly be ashamed of themselves for not noticing what Affleck has accomplished. Still, with excellent performances from John Goodman and Alan Arkin, the film remains one of the best of 2012 and is a mandatory watch for all movie-lovers out there.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Video Home Entertainment brings 'Argo' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. Inside a blue, eco-cutout keepcase with a cardboard slipcover, a Region Free, BD50 disc sits comfortably opposite a DVD-9 copy of the movie. After a slow startup, viewers can skip a couple trailers before taken to a main menu with a static photo, music and generic options at the bottom.
'Argo' storms Blu-ray with a stunning, highly-detailed 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.40:1). The picture comes with sharp, well-defined lines in the architecture of Iranian buildings, streets, and the marketplace. Foliage and tree bark are distinct and clear from a distance. Stitching in the groovy 70s clothes, stylish hairdos, and the gaudy interior furnishings of the Canadian ambassador's home are crystal-clear and discrete. Facial complexions are revealing and lifelike, with visible pores and negligible blemishes during close-ups. A few scenes are noticeably softer and blurrier than the rest, but that can be attributed to the deliberate photography and is not a fault of the encode.
Along those lines, the cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto ('Broken Embraces,' 'Water for Elephants') displays a strong yellow-amber push, giving the film an aged, antiquated feel that's fitting to the plot's setting and period. Thankfully, this doesn't affect the overall palette, as primaries remain richly-saturated and often sumptuous, while secondary hues are bold and cleanly resolved. Flesh tones appear natural and appropriate to the region's climate. Contrast isn't exactly the strongest, but it's stable and consistent, allowing for excellent visibility and clarity into the distance. Black levels are mildly affected by the film's intentional look, with a couple murky moments, but overall, they remain true and deep, with great shadow detailing, making this a first-rate high-def presentation.
The political thriller also debuts with this terrific and far-better than initially expected DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The rears are employed in equal measure to the fronts during several scenes, particularly the most suspenseful moments. Delivering discrete effects with excellent directionality and flawless panning, a wide assortment of sounds move throughout the room, creating a highly-engaging and immersive aural experience. Helicopters fly overhead, street traffic is all-encompassing, and the terrifying chants of angry protesters are often enveloping. Quieter segments display a more subtle approach as the wind blows in the distance, the noise of a busy market surrounds the listener, and conversations echo in the large hallways of the CIA.
Of course, being a dialogue-driven story, the majority of the film displays a front-heavy design. With exceptional channel separation, the soundstage feels wide and spacious. Off-screen effects are discrete and convincing while vocals are precise and well-prioritized in the center. The mid-range exhibits remarkable detailed clarity and distinction, with several moments pushing into the upper frequencies without fault or a hint of distortion. The low-end is deep and potent, providing action sequences with tremendous weight and substance. The music, and the great rock selection in particular, really demonstrates the quality of the lossless mix best with brilliant depth and superb stereo fidelity. Overall, it's terrific high-rez track for an intensely suspenseful film.
In every practical sense, 'Argo' is your standard, conventional political thriller, but the film is so well-crafted and exceptionally designed that we overlook this fact and simply enjoy the suspenseful thrill-ride. With excellent performances from John Goodman and Alan Arkin, director Ben Affleck demonstrates a remarkable talent for crafting tense, dramatic scenes that make for greatly satisfying popcorn entertainment. The film arrives with an outstanding audio and video presentation and worthwhile bonus features, making this Blu-ray highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.