Somehow Ben Affleck has become a better director than actor. Not that he’s a bad actor. He’s just a much better director. Not necessarily a great director (yet), but a pretty good one, with three pretty good movies under his belt: “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and the new geopolitical thriller “Argo.”
The based-on-a-true-story “Argo” is definitely Affleck’s most ambitious film. The gripping opening scenes depict Islamic militants taking over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and taking those inside hostage while six Americans quietly escape out a back entrance and take refuge at the home of a Canadian ambassador. The action then moves to America, and the C.I.A.’s discussions on how to get the six Americans out of Iran and back home. An “exfiltration” expert named Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought into these brainstorming sessions, where he informs his co-workers that all of their ideas are doomed to fail. “Do you have a better idea?” someone asks him. “No,” he replies.
Later, while watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” while talking to his son on the phone, a lightbulb goes off in Mendez’s head. He returns to work and proposes that the Americans pose as Canadian filmmakers who are scouting locations for a science-fiction movie. Told that this is a bad idea, Mendez’s boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), replies, “This is the best bad idea we have.” The next section of the film shows Mendez recruiting make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help him with his ruse: They set up a fictitious film production company, find a script and hold auditions for the movie, dubbed “Argo.” The Hollywood stuff is interspersed with tense scenes of the six Americans, who worry that the Iranian housekeeper has figured out who they are, and the final third of the film details Mendez’s audacious rescue — his effort to convince the Americans that his crazy plan to work, and trouble-shoot the various snags they encounter.
In style, “Argo” evokes the great political/conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s — films such as “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View.” The dialogue is sharp, the suspense builds steadily and the acting is quite good — it isn’t hard to imagine Robert Redford or Warren Beatty starring in this film, surrounded by character actors such as Jason Robards and Hal Holbrook. Affleck has lovingly re-created the era, and has an excellent eye for detail, from the fashions of the time to the prevalence of cigarettes to the look and feel of newscasts and office buildings.
Where “Argo” differs from the films of the 1970s is in attitude. For the most part, those films were sharply critical of government and authority, often depicting naive young men stumbling upon vast conspiracies perpetuated by the highest levels of authority. “Argo,” on the other hand, is a very patriotic film. Aside from an opening montage that briefs viewers on the events leading up to the Islamic revolution, the film avoids raising or asking tough political questions, choosing to focus almost solely on the mission, and the question of whether it will succeed.
As a result, the film’s impact is mostly emotional, rather than intellectual: You feel outraged when the embassy is taken hostage, and when Iranians are rioting in the streets and burning American flags. You feel scared for the six Americans, and also full of pride — at their ingenuity, bravery and grace under pressure. The final scenes, in which SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! Mendez and the Americans board a plane just moments before the Iranians figure out who they are will have your heart pounding. This is rousing, red-blooded stuff. As a result, “Argo” lacks the darker and more rebellious spirit of the best political thrillers. It does an excellent job of describing events, but not of making you think very deeply about them.
Still, “Argo” is a very entertaining movie. It has a better sense of humor than films such as “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View,” and its stranger-than-fiction storyline is a definite asset, especially when you have thespians such as Arkin and Goodman playing your Hollywood insiders. (Sadly, Arkin’s character appears to be made-up.) I was a little bothered by the broad strokes with which the Iranians were painted — viewers seeking an Iranian perspective on the revolution should check out Marjane Satrapi’s 2007 animated autobiographical film “Persepolis” — and I couldn’t help but think that the really important story, about the Americans held hostage at the embassy for 444 days, was going untold.
But that doesn’t mean “Argo” isn’t a tale worth telling, and I’m glad Affleck decided to tell it.
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