Let’s stipulate right out of the chute that if Ben Affleck’s hair and beard, shooting style, or even just opening credit design choice for Argo can do anything to jump start a quality, going back to the 1970s movie making ethos in Hollywood, the film will have earned its keep. Admit it people, for all the grief the 70s take overall as a lost decade, when it comes to movies (and music) the decade had it going on. And when Affleck hit me with Van Halen Dance The Night Away over a slow-motionized Hollywood party scene and Led Zeppelin When The Levee Breaks spinning on vinyl, Ben Garner had earned some points.
Argo is a fun movie, and in a movie universe where the best movies are usually cartoons and everyone is looking to build a franchise, it’s good to see a movie like this made that isn’t a small independent. There is a lot of 70s throwback style to this. Which makes sense, since it is after all about an offshoot of the Iran hostage crisis of the 1979-1981. The story is a based on fact one about a handful of workers in the U.S. embassy in Tehran who were able to escape before being captured. They end up being protected and hidden by the Canadian embassy, while the U.S. government tries to figure out a way to get them out.
You can read all about the truth of what happened on the CIA website, as the entire operation is now public knowledge. But long story short Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, an agent who comes up with the idea of pretending to be scouting for a film location in Iran as a way to get into the country and get the hidden U.S. embassy representatives out. In order to do this and seem credible, Mendez engages a Hollywood makeup artist (Oscar winner John Chambers in real life) and producer to help him put together the cover of a real movie being made. They start a production company, come up with a script (a sort of Star Wars ripoff) and they’re off and running.
The Affleck as CIA agent in Hollywood section of the film is both highly engaging and comic relief, as John Goodman and Alan Arkin ham it up skewering the ins and outs of Hollywood. In fact, one of my criticisms of Argo would probably be that the Hollywood setup part of things was too brief and thin. First off, there’s no way everything was set up as easily as it was portrayed in Affleck’s version of things. And second, Goodman and Arkin are just too much fun together to be limited to the amount of screen time they were given. Arkin’s line reading of one word, “Taco”, by itself is worthy of a statue come Oscar time. And if you don’t agree with me, Argo fu–, oh just go see the movie.
Once we get beyond the fun and Affleck gets down to the business of pulling the hiding Americans out, the second half of the film is a very solid little thriller. Affleck as director is quite effective in building up suspense with simple mood without overdoing it or laying it on too thick. There is, I’m sure, plenty to debate as to how 100% true to actual events Affleck is in the movie. Apparently, he overdid the tensions at the airport during the actual “escape” while maybe underplaying the particulars of getting into Iran with the movie cover in the first place. There were, by all accounts, a lot of ins and outs in terms of U.S.-Canadian cooperation that were changed here and there for the sake of time, as well. But what I’m sure is true is that the entire operation really was certainly operating very much out on a wire while it was happening and, again, Affleck as director is effective as ratcheting up the tension.
The ensemble of actors playing the hiding American embassy workers are remarkable as a group in their unremarkableness. Affleck made a good directing choice, I thought, in making them very much a group of people that don’t portray any super standout characteristics, but rather are just people in a place doing a job and getting caught up in horrible circumstances. They are portrayed as worrying and making decisions as a group, which worked well in the context of the story. Bryan Cranston as the CIA operative coordinating everything back in America is excellent in bringing out the tensions and importance of the operation.
Affleck as director also did a solid job in reminding the audience of just how big a deal the entire hostage crisis was back in 1979-80 in this country. I was a preteen at the time, and I can remember as Affleck shows in the film the nightly 5 minute or so updates on the situation interrupting The Love Boat. It seems odd in the world we live in now, where because so much is over exaggerated it tends to diminish those things that are truly important, but you could argue that the Iran hostage crisis affected the country at the time very much in the same way 9/11 did.
Ironically enough, considering the solid job he did as director, I’d agree with my wife (who I give full credit for pointing out the cool 1970s opening title design) when she says Affleck as Tony Mendez was pretty underwhelming. He seemed way too laid back in his acting choices. It could be that he was trying to go for a cool under pressure vibe about the Mendez character, but it came across as Mendez not being so much cool as just detached and disconnected. There was no there there. And the side story regarding Mendez’s family was so underdone as to be completely unnecessary (and at the end of the movie, simply superfluous).
There’s probably plenty to nitpick with Argo. The movie, while it tries to steer away from too much political commentary, nevertheless is almost necessarily viewed through a political prism. With what is coming out about the attack of our embassy in Benghazi, you can’t help but watch Argo through that lens. How you feel about America’s involvement in propping up dictators will affect how you view things. How you see religious based terrorism in the Middle East comes into play. To Affleck’s credit, though, he takes a pretty neutral stance on all of it. He’s simply telling the story of a group of people (Americans and Canadians) helping their own against pretty big odds. It’s well done, exciting and refreshingly free of judgment.