The festival darling and awards contender Argo is about as close as political thrillers get to becoming a thoroughly engaging entertainment, while not quite managing to fully thrill or provoke me outright. The third (and best) feature from Gone Baby Gone and The Town helmer Ben Affleck, there simply is no denying his talents as a mainstream engineer of visuals. The actor-turned-director/actor, whose new movie is based on the 1979 true story of a CIA operative staging a covert infiltration of Iran via a fake film production (rescuing six Americans in the process), demonstrates yet again his uncanny ability to build suspense and to deliver viscerally satisfying payoff. Without a doubt, his new movie is a high-spirited crowd-pleaser. Now if only Affleck thought to give his movie a little bit of heart as well.
For all my reservations, though, it warrants stressing how genuinely likeable and accessible Argo is, especially considering its politically charged template in the Iran Hostage Crisis. Affleck boldly opens his film with the staging of the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that precipitates the Crisis; an incident compelled, per the film, by a mob of Iranian protestors furious about the States’ granting of asylum to the deposed Shah Mohammad Reza. In a manner not dissimilar to how Steven Spielberg staged his harrowing prelude to Munich, Affleck cuts across different perspectives – from Iranian protestors to Embassy hostages-in-waiting – as an angry protest snowballs into a full-fledged coup – a coup from which the aforementioned six escapees slink away from their aggressors. Affleck blends in scattered, grainy images of the protests – images clearly shot in a way so as to resemble old news footage of that era. I call Affleck’s choices here bold because it is a clear act of provocation; it’s a stark reminder to those old enough to remember the Crisis’ prominence in American culture, and it’s an incitement upon younger viewers to draw parallels between our perception of Iran as a world citizen then and how we perceive the nation now. Affleck aims to project both reflection and urgency in his opening, and it is quite beautifully executed.
Understandably, but perhaps unfortunately, things take a more conventional turn once Argo’s plot starts to kick in. The CIA learns of the six American fugitives, as they are taken under the clandestine wing of the Canadian ambassador immediately following their escape. Brainstorming ideas on how to rescue the patriots-in-hiding, Agent Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) ultimately proposes the outlandish idea of infiltrating Iran by disguising himself – and the Embassy escapees – as a Canadian film crew hoping to shoot on-location in the nation’s capital. With no further options available – Tony’s boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) concedes his plan “is the best bad idea” available to them – the CIA backs the operation.
Tony enlists help from Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and crusty, washed-up director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to lend credibility and faux-publicity to the whole charade. The resulting “film” is Argo, a Middle-Easternized science fiction fable boasting a hackey script and only marginal hype from the media. Once the Hollywood facade is fully engineered, Tony embarks on the incredibly dangerous journey of flying to Iran, intercepting the six escaped Americans, turning them into Canadian filmmakers, and helping them “act” their way out of Tehran.
The script for Argo, written by Chris Terrio, requires its characters to move around from coast-to-coast in the States, in addition to dedicating considerable time in Iran. Tony Mendez leads us through most of the story, but many other characters are afforded miniature arcs of their own. A few too many, it must be said. We see the infiltration process in its entirety, from the acerbic, chummy camaraderie between Chambers and Goodman in Hollywood, to the reluctant supportiveness of O’Donnell at his desk in Langley, to the severe lack of credulity from those increasingly fearful American refugees who are one bad step removed from imprisonment, death and international disaster. Affleck even treats his Mendez character to a pathos-imbuing side plot involving his estranged wife and son.
Unfortunately, none of these superfluous arcs in Terrio’s overly busy script gets its proper due, and it impedes Argo from unqualified greatness. Whether that is an issue of convoluted storytelling or an overabundance of true-life facts the script is obligated to notate, I cannot say. But ultimately, the decision not to streamline the plot to Argo results in Affleck relinquishing any discernable lens through which the larger ideas apparent to Argo can be processed. Is our time spent in with those Hollywood insiders meant to indict an industry so vacuous in nature that it could serve as a plausible front for so absurdist an operation? Is our time spent with Tony as he laments his waning relationship with his family intended as some kind of work-versus-family meditation? And most importantly, wherefore art the political underpinnings hinted at in the movie’s artful opening sequence? Unless Affleck wished Argo’s admittedly impeccable depiction of Carter-era America as allegory for our ongoing conflicts with Iran and the Middle East (I’m not so sure about that), the movie seldom aims for much more challenging or savory than a genre-conforming exercise in thrills.
But that’s not to say such an approach can’t be satisfying in its own right. As an exercise, it truly must be reiterated that Argo is a taut, well acted and broad-reaching success; one sure to sate the appetite for anybody looking for a well-crafted Hollywood thriller. It is with this movie that Affleck truly proves his ability to ratchet tension with adroitness and assurance. Even if his characterizations leave much to be desired, many of the sequences he stages – as when he brings the conspicuously North American escapees on a “test-run” through the streets of Tehran, or in the movie’s utterly harrowing final sequence in the city’s airport terminal – left me leaning noticeably forward in my seat, gripping the arms of my chair. Were it not for its undeniable status as an awards contender, I’m not so sure Argo would be a movie I would ever find myself revisiting beyond my initial screening. But it still manages to leave an impression endearing enough that I wish more movies of its ilk were being made. Let’s hope, in the realm of mainstream filmmaking, Argo becomes a Hollywood trendsetter.
Bottom Line: Argo is an engrossing and truly entertaining political thriller, despite its marginally slim characterizations.