Argo, based on the declassified true story, is an interesting, engaging and intelligent movie directed by and starring Ben Affleck. For me, Affleck is a mixed director. On one hand, he brings a lot of tension and immediacy to his films, and you can see the effort put in to make them feel genuine, but I can’t help but often feel like they’re bloated and could use a better editor. That’s especially true of The Town, his weakest film to date — at least, his weakest in which he’s behind the camera.
Here, we’re taken back in time to 1979, Iran, which was in a period of violent revolution. Revolutionaries take over the United States embassy, trapped upwards of 60 people inside. Only six diplomats escape, and they wind up hiding out at the Canadian ambassador’s home. After a couple of months of this, it’s worried that they’ll be found, so the CIA decides that it’s time to rescue them. Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to headline an extraction plan, which involves setting them up as a Canadian film crew and simply waltzing them out of the airport. Americans and Canadians are different, after all, and the Iranians were only looking for the former.
However, he first has to establish his fake movie, “Argo,” as fact, or else the Iranians will never believe the cover story. He enlists the help of a big-shot producer (Alan Arkin) and a makeup artist (John Goodman), to bring this fake movie to life. A lot of potshots are taken at Hollywood and American culture at this point in the movie, which is quite hilarious. The humor continues throughout, but the first third of Argo is when the tone is lighter.
It’s only once Mendez arrives in Iran, meets the people he needs to rescue, and sees the horror of the situation, that Argo really gets interesting. These diplomats– all played by lesser-known actors — are not at all prepared for his plan, nor do they even initially want to go with it. If you’re not fully committed, it’s likely to fail. You sense that something can go wrong at any moment, as the plan is just so far-fetched that it simply has to fail. Right?
I mentioned at the outset that Argo is based on a true story. I meant that. The CIA actually did send a man named Tony Mendez to Iran to rescue six diplomats from the Canadian ambassador’s house by having them pose as a science-fiction film crew. Does that sound plausible? No, but it’s what happened. What isn’t shown in the film is how major a role Canada played in the role, but this is a Hollywood film, so I don’t know why I would expect that. Just don’t expect a completely true-to-life film, here; it’s only “based on a true story.”
That’s not a reason to discredit Argo anyway, as it is an incredibly enjoyable experience. It’s uplifting, thrilling — especially for a film where you know the outcome if you’re aware of the history behind it — and has a ton of strong performances. It’s also really funny, and gives you enough to think about even when the action dies down. Essentially, it’s the perfect kind of “Awards Movie,” and if it isn’t nominated for a slew of Oscars, I would be incredibly surprised.
It is still too long, and there are a few sections which felt repetitive and could have been trimmed to tighten the pacing. It all builds up well, and by the end, you’ll be biting your nails, but the time spent leading up to this point was sometimes a bit slow. Some of the events later on in Argo are also a touch too coincidental to be completely believable, although they don’t end up taking away your focus until you reflect upon the film after you view it.
It doesn’t have deep characters, although in a film like this, that isn’t a problem. Almost everyone is given a cover identity, meaning you rarely, if ever, get to meet the real person. The only exceptions to this are Goodman and Arkin, as well as Bryan Cranston, who plays Medez’s boss in the CIA, who gets a sensational monologue right near the end. Mendez and the six diplomats all have to act differently from who they actually are, and the believability of their cover is what’s going to determine whether or not they escape alive.
The only actor who doesn’t “bring it,” so to speak, is Affleck, who is just as wooden and inconsequential as he is in his last directorial picture, The Town. He can be charismatic — we’ve seen that before — but he portrays all the emotion of a cinder block here. The other actors do what they can with limited roles, which is to say that they walk around Affleck at all points, even though the camera is usually focused on the star. It’s clear that Affleck cares about this material and wanted to make a good movie (he did), but it might be time for him to just stay behind the camera.
Argo is a funny, enjoyable political thriller that’s almost certain to garner a great deal of accolades. It doesn’t have terribly deep characters — that’s part of the point — but what it does have is an unbelievable true story, told in a compelling way. Affleck is a good director, and he’s perfect for this material. He just needs to let someone else act and maybe hire a more ruthless editor to ensure the tightest film gets released.