Sleight of hand
Ben Affleck balances thrills and respect for the audience in Iran rescue flick Argo
Posted: October 12, 2012 at 2:01 a.m.
LITTLE ROCK Ben Affleck’s Argo is the best kind of Hollywood movie, a gripping, suspenseful story leavened with dry grim humor and resolved in well-earned uplift. That anyone could make such an entertaining movie about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis might surprise those who lived through the time; that the erstwhile star of Gigli and Pearl Harbor has done it says much about the redemptive possibilities of art.
Affleck has now made three movies - Gone, Baby Gone and The Town are the others - and each one of them has displayed a remarkable control of tone and authorial restraint. Affleck has emerged as a curator of great taste and sensitivity even as he has worked in blatantly commercial forms. Like Clint Eastwood before him, he seems to have both a deep understanding of the place that movies occupy in our popular culture and a respect for the average American moviegoer. His films are accessible but accomplished, with an artist’s eye for significant detail and emotional freight. Best of all, they are superbly paced.
That said, it is probably important to point out that Argo is simply based on a true story - there is much about the undeniably fascinating joint CIA-Canadian government mission the film depicts that is left out, and the script adds a few third act complications for dramatic purposes. As always, we probably shouldn’t get our history from the movies. (For that, find the 2007 story in Wired magazine that screenwriter Chris Terrio based his script on, or Robert Wright’s 2011 book Our Man in Tehran.)
Anyway, Affleck’s film relates a streamlined version of the mission to rescue six U.S. diplomats who hid out in the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Tehran in the wake of the occupation of the American embassy by Iranian students and Islamic militants in November 1979. (The 52 American hostages in the embassy were held for 444 days before diplomatic negotiations arranged for their release - minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president of the United States.)
Key players in the operation included a CIA “exfiltration” expert named Tony Mendez (played here by Affleck) and Oscar-winning Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman). To get the “houseguests” out of the ambassador’s residence and onto a flight home, Mendez and Chambers, abetted by film producer Lester Siegel (the always welcome Alan Arkin) set up a production company to make a schlocky Star Wars rip-off called Argo.
The plan was for Mendez, posing as the film’s co-producer, to fly to Tehran, deliver false Canadian passports (helpfully provided by Ottawa) and cover stories to the embassy personnel, and fly out a couple of days later with his film crew. That there would be no record of his crew’s arrival in the country would be just one of the problems he’d have to finesse.
Obviously Affleck and company thought a lot about the film’s look as well as underlying themes of subterfuge, misdirection and illusion - the congruencies of spycraft and stagecraft. Texturally Argo looks and feels very much like a smart Carter-era Warner Bros. feature (I was reminded, for some reason, of Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time) and Affleck cannily sets the stage by starting his film with a story-boarded synopsis of the strained relationship between the United States and Iran in 1979.
And the performances are all first-rate, with the actors obviously cast with their resemblance to the actual people involved in the caper. The exception is Affleck, whose shaggy rock-star handsomeness seems more appropriate to the Hollywood ideal of the international spy than the drab reality. But then this is the Hollywood version.
Which leads us to our principal niggle - which is that the movie Mendez seems primarily an exemplar of world weariness, the man of action worn down by the suits who constantly remind him that his job is “to follow orders.” The real Mendez was (and is) an artist, and it might have been interesting if we saw more of that in this character. Affleck gives a fine performance here, but I wonder what this movie might have been had he cast an actor less rugged than himself.
Probably some independent arthouse flick.
Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, Clea DuVall, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Tate Donovan, Chris Messina
R, for language and some violent images
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 10/12/2012