This is surprising because it’s gotten to the point where any reasonably well crafted and acted mainstream picture coming out this time of year rushes into a frontrunner role in the Academy derby thanks to overenthusiastic accolades.
This site is meant to review films and not worry about any film’s Oscar chances. But I mention this because this buzz highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the film made by and starring Ben Affleck.
Affleck has been modestly talented actor and later a star throughout his Hollywood career. In recent years he has shown with this film and earlier with “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone” that his real talent is as a director. He’s the real deal.
But he is mostly a Hollywood director, seeing the opportunities for creating tension and big moments for actors and slick pay-offs to plot lines. Even when dealing with the rougher sections of his hometown of Boston there is a gloss to his filmmaking.
Which is why Hollywood has embraced the Ben Affleck experience: He can deliver mainstream movies that somehow look and feel like independent ones. He can, in other words, make films that might win awards along with a decent box-office take.
The rescue of six Americans hiding out in the Tehran residence of the Canadian Ambassador in 1980 following the takeover of the American embassy by radical militants the previous fall is an exciting tale that demands a Hollywood movie.
The undercover events were declassified years ago under President Clinton so the full efforts of the CIA agent who hatched the escape plan, Tony Mendez, are ripe for cinematic exploration.
The screenplay from Chris Terrio, based on Mendez’s own memoir and a Wired Magazine article by Joshuah Bearman, is outfitted with easily recognized and enjoyable characters, about as much suspense as an audience can stand and, yes, those moments where actors can tear into a scene and possibly pick up a nomination.
There is also a can’t-miss Hollywood angle. Mendez’s plan was to disguise the Americans as a Canadian film crew, apparently oblivious to the security dangers in Iran, scouting locations for a big Hollywood sic-fi movie called “Argo.”
It is, as Mendez’s immediate CIA boss (Bryan Cranston) famously declares in the film — a line featured in the trailer playing everywhere for months — “the best bad idea we have.”
This allows for all sorts of Hollywood in-jokes, which even your maiden aunt in St. Louis will fully appreciate. These concern the setting up of a fake movie in a town that runs on BS and how even a rhesus monkey can learn how to be a film director.
But Affleck and Terrio are careful never to let the comedic elements take hold of the dramatic situation. Indeed a reading of the “Argo” screenplay by actors in silly sic-fi costumes is intercut with a mock execution of American embassy hostages by cruel militants. So this is always serious stuff.
Nevertheless, John Goodman playing the late Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers has a fine time strutting about the best masquerade of his life. He has fabricated a fake production with art work, ads in the trades and a production office with phone lines in case the militants ever want to check out “Argo.”
And Alan Arkin, playing a gone-to-seed producer, a fictional character but no doubt composited from any number of real characters in this town, gives a deliciously hammy performance as the man who fronts the “Argo” project.
The first serious error Affleck makes is casting himself as Tony Mendez. He was perhaps too distracted helming such a major production in L.A., Washington D.C. and Istanbul to pay close attention to the finer points of the central character.
In fact, when you first see Tony, he’s sprawled out on a bed, waking up in evening clothes. This is never explained or perhaps the explanation was cut but it’s odd for the fact that it’s the only chance the movie ever has to give “Tony Mendez” some definition.
Movie portrayals of real-life people, especially ones who have performed heroic deeds, tend towards blandness. A film doesn’t want to suggest any faults or flaws in such a character. The guy is temporarily separated from his wife and young son but that’s about it for his resume.
He must persuade everyone — his bosses, the Hollywood types, the Canadians and finally the hostages themselves that this best bad idea will really work.
In truth, the real Tony Mendez did this convincing fairly easily. Here’s a link to the Wired piece that details the operation. Yet the film version insists on throwing one road block after another into fictional Tony’s path.
The delaying of time and cross-cutting between actions on a collision course have been staples of movie tension going back to D.W. Griffith two-reelers. The trick is not to let audiences catch you in the act of gross manipulation.
Affleck and Terrio don’t succeed.
The problem may stem from the current gurus of screenwriting who have taught a generation of screenwriter and film execs that after every plot twist must come another plot twist. And another. You wonder how Hitchcock created suspense without doing this.
It’s a mechanical exercise and audiences suss it out. I caught “Argo” with its most sympathetic audience at the L.A. premiere with some of the cast and crew and WB execs in the audience.
Nevertheless, I heard the occasional giggle or gasp as obstacles get hurled at Tony and his escapees when they try to fly out of Tehran in their Canadian disguises. No doubt many enjoyed these obstacles: The tightening of the screw is always sure giggle material.
Since the heroism is real enough — on everyone’s part — the movie figures a little exaggeration can’t hurt. Yet even before I read the Wired piece, I found the scenes of where the hiding embassy staffers argue with Tony or where angry local shopkeepers scream at the Westerners to ring false.
The Revolutionary Guard officers racing through the airport to stop the escaping Americans reminded me of Major Strasser racing to the airport to stop Victor and Ilse Lazslo from leaving Casablanca in the movie of the same name.
It reminded me, in other words, of movie fiction. Good movie fiction in the case of “Casablanca” but “Argo” aspires to a less romantic, more hard-edged kind of heroism. This climax is blatantly false.
Most audiences are not going to mind, of course. But the movie starts out as if it has more in mind.
The initial minutes are taken up with a documentary-like examination of the facts and personalities leading up to the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis of 1979-1981,which derailed the Carter presidency.
The terrifying taking of the American embassy by an enraged mob — enraged not without reason as the movie makes clear — and the escape of the six workers is so skillfully done by Affleck that the movie lays claim to greater significance than a genre exercise.
This first act reps the best filmmaking of Affleck’s still nascent directing career. The Hollywood interlude is fun, satirical and cynical insider fun, then the third act falls back on genre clichés, xenophobic portrayals of nearly every Iranian character and almost no character development for the imperiled Americans.
This is where Affleck’s instincts are still mainstream even though like his bearded, long-haired character (in full period costume) he is a master of disguise and distraction.
This is a solid crowd-pleaser but one awaits a tougher-minded movie from Ben Affleck. “Argo” proves he has it in him.
Opens: October 12, 2012 (Warner Bros.)
Production: GK Films presents a Smokehouse Pictures production
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Keith Szarabajka, Bob Gunton, Richard Kind, Richard Dillane, Omid Abtahi, Page Leong, Farshad Farahat, Sheila Vand Director: Ben Affleck
Screenwriter: Chris Terrio
Based on: “The Master of Disguise” by Antonio J. Mendez and a Wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman
Producers: Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney
Executive producers: David Klawans, Nina Wolarsky, Chris Brigham, Chay Carter, Graham King, Tim Headington
Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Production designer: Sharon Seymour
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Jacqueline West
Editor: William Goldenberg
R rating, 120 minutes