I love what Ben Affleck’s Argo represents — smart, crisp, adult-oriented entertainment that isn’t afraid to have a little fun while also telling a seriously tense story. Affleck’s a considerable Hollywood name, and my growing admiration for him as an actor and particularly as a filmmaker is not unlike the respect I have for the likes of George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Brad Pitt. Here are people who use their names to champion good stuff, and it’s extremely refreshing that Affleck’s behind-the-camera career appears bound to travel a similar path.
And good on him, because Argo, more so than anything else, is a splendidly directed motion picture. It begins with a history-lesson prologue that lays out the film’s contextual framework — the Iranian Revolution, circa 1979 — and then Affleck shoves us, without hesitation, into Tehran, as enraged militants storm the U.S. Embassy and eventually succeed in capturing 52 American hostages. The time and devotion Affleck gives to re-creating this moment — intrusively capturing burning American flags and crazed bodies climbing up steel bars — signals us to the presence of a director who’s taken his game to the next level.
What he does with the interiors is equally skillful. As we’re introduced to the six Americans — Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane), Mark and Cora Lijek (Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall), and Joe and Kathy Stafford (Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe) — that will soon escape to the Canadian ambassador’s (Victor Garber) house, Affleck, with great economy, draws up the office atmosphere that will define much of the film. Stacks of paper the size of large encyclopedias fill the desks, and every ashtray we see is overflowing with dead cigarette butts. This is a director with a good eye. (Credit, too, should go to the handsome work of lenser Rodrigo Prieto.)
Once the six are taken in by Garber’s Ken Taylor, the other main thread of Chris Terrio’s screenplay is revealed. The CIA is scrambling to find a way to get the six escapees back, and, in their search, they call on the expertise of Tony Mendez (Affleck), an “exfiltration” specialist with a distinguished history of getting the job done. The plan he comes up with here, however, is enough to get Philip Baker Hall to raise his eyebrows. Using the cover of a science-fiction adventure film, Mendez wants to retrieve the hostages by posing them as members of a location-scouting crew for a fake movie.
It’s a bonkers idea, but the support shown by Bryan Cranston’s Jack O’Donnell — “This is the best bad idea we have, sir, by far,” he says to his superiors — and a few others gives Mendez enough leeway to begin working. He flies to Hollywood to enlist the help of Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who tells him that the first thing he’ll need is a script. In the peculiarly titled “Argo,” they find one that’ll work for the mission — its wild, zany, globe-exploring antics give his forged scouting crew some tiny semblance of a reason to be in Tehran during such a fiery time.
The other key piece of the puzzle is veteran Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Arkin creates a wonderful character here, the kind of sardonic guy who knows all about his profession and is too old to give a crap about maintaining appearances and career-forwarding masks. There is a funny scene here where Mendez and Siegel, in order to legitimize the profile of the project, have to organize a public reading of the “Argo” screenplay, and the way Arkin briskly dismisses an attendee wanting to know the reason behind the title is priceless.
I’m not sure, however, that what comes after these first fifty-or-so minutes cashes in entirely on the promise. Some of resultant conflict between Mendez and the people he’s assigned to retrieve feels choreographed and ineffective, especially in the crafting of Scoot McNairy’s skeptical Joe Stafford, even if the actor is on customarily unrecognizable form (see Killing Them Softly for further evidence). And while Affleck is nothing if not well-versed in cross-cutting suspense techniques, much of the drama leading up to the thrilling final third falls flat, probably because Terrio’s screenplay, sharply written as it is verbally, never quite builds a character to rally around. The shaggy, bearded appearance is an appealingly self-deprecating one for Affleck — and the rest of the on-point, glasses-wearing ensemble looks suitably of the period — but there’s not much depth depicted beyond the taut tension of the situation.
Affleck’s previous two films, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, were both Boston-set, and Affleck had a hand in the script for each of them. Perhaps that’s where their soulful punch came from. With Argo, his direction, skillful as ever, can still only do so much to rise above the procedural quality of Terrio’s work on the page. But the film has glimpses of power, notably in the curtain-closing sequence that has Affleck’s camera, finally allowed to take a deep breath, swooning over a set of plastic action-movie toys. But rather than tempting me to reflect on the film at hand — which is probably what will happen to those that are really taken with Argo — these ending shots simply made me all the more eager to see what Affleck will do next.
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