Ben Affleck petered out as an actor, but as a director he has petered right back in, and with his third movie Argo he may well find himself the helmer of an Oscar nominated movie.
Is Argo that good? Yes and no. Affleck takes substantial liberties with the story of the bizarre rescue of six American hostages who were separated from the rest in the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis in Tehran, and all three of his films (the others are Gone Baby Gone and The Town) end melodramatically. Still, Argo is hugely entertaining, with a smart script and a deft sense of humor.
Affleck the actor (he probably should have cast someone less lackluster in the lead) plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent at Langley and a specialist in “exfiltration.” He rejects several possible solutions to the problem of how to save six U.S. Embassy employees in Tehran who sneaked out the back when angry ayatollah-loving revolutionaries demanding the return of the U.S.-backed shah of Iran stormed the compound and took 52 Americans hostage. (The 52 eventually returned safely, more than a year later, by which time President Jimmy Carter was seen as hopelessly weak and Ronald Reagan had just been sworn in.)
The subgroup of six hid out in the home of the Canadian ambassador but couldn’t come up with a plausible reason to leave the country without being detected and arrested. Mendez, back in Virginia, thinks outside the box. Way outside the box. He suggests papers be forged to indicate that the six had been in the country for just a couple of days — and had arrived to scout locations for a schlocky Star Wars ripoff called Argo.
Affleck has a lot of fun with late-70s L.A., and he clearly is more interested in showbiz than in international politics. The Hollywood sign in the hills was crumbling and forgotten, and a makeup man (John Goodman) whose credits include a Planet of the Apes movie serves as an introduction to several cynical, wily, loveable characters including a caustic producer (Alan Arkin). Told that the CIA needs him for a mission involving “the worst place you can think of,” Goodman’s character replies, “Universal City.” As for Mendez’s cover story of being a small-time producer, Goodman says, “You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything. You’ll fit right in.”
Mendez stresses that in order for the ruse to work, everything must proceed exactly as if a real movie were being produced, which gives him lots of opportunities to balance the tension of the hostage crisis with lines like, “You’re worried about the ayatollah? Try the W.G.A.” (or Writers Guild of America, which is notoriously finicky about rights issues).
Hollywood, of course, loves to think of itself as both a piranha pool and as a crusading land of do-gooders saving the world, which is why this film is a perfect Oscar contender, though viewers will be left puzzled by such episodes as an elaborately staged script reading, in costume, of the Argo screenplay held to win coverage in the trade paper Variety. Later we’ll see the Iranians looking at the Variety piece as partial proof of the cover story, but this must be the first movie I’ve ever seen that contends seething Iranian revolutionaries have a clue what Variety is, or are so gullible as to believe a simple newspaper clipping couldn’t be or wouldn’t be faked by the Great Satan.
Should we hold Argo to a higher standard because it’s based on a real incident that was declassified only in the 1990s (and includes a snippet of an actual Jimmy Carter interview)? Yes, but fact-checking the movie would be another article. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief a little, Argo moves along swiftly, with Affleck proving as adept at capturing the terror and strangeness of revolutionary Tehran (where, for instance, a visitor might notice that the corpse of a traitor was left dangling over the streets as a warning) as he is at goofing on Hollywood habits. Affleck takes note of sinister little details such as how, on a flight to Tehran, flight attendants come around and collect all alcoholic drinks the moment the plane enters Iranian airspace.
But despite Affleck’s evident interest in rehabilitating Carter’s reputation (talk about a doomed mission!) and one or two annoying moments of liberal preaching, don’t mistake Argo for one of those would-be George Clooney political thrillers. Like The Town, this is at least a smart popcorn movie, and that’s fine.
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