With Argo, Ben Affleck the director has fully ensconced himself inside Hollywood filmmaking. While he’s never been the most daring of filmmakers, he’s never been afraid to be a bit dark. There’s a moral complexity to Gone Baby Gone (2007) that you rarely see in major motion pictures, while The Town (2010) is a well-drawn, sometimes violent crime picture that never forgets to entertain. This time around, Affleck has widened his scope into a “based on a true story” historical drama and shifted into full-on crowd-pleaser mode. And while Argo is expertly crafted, written and acted, there’s something lost in its predestined need to be neat, tidy and ultimately gratifying. While I hesitate to trot out the phrase “Oscar bait,” there’s definitely a whiff of it here, and Argo suffers because of it.
Taking place during the Iran hostage crisis which began in 1979, Argo tells of a recently declassified CIA mission to extricate a handful of U.S. diplomats who are hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s (Victor Garber) home. With Iran in the throes of revolution — and with the diplomats constantly in danger of being discovered and murdered — seemingly disgraced CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck in a truly awkward beard-and-haircut combo) comes up with a seemingly harebrained, eccentric scheme. By posing the diplomats as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for a bogus science fiction film called Argo, Mendez thinks he can sneak the Americans through Iranian security and onto a plane back to the States.
The film spends the bulk of its setup resembling something like a heist flick, as Mendez — with the help of a schlocky special effects maven (John Goodman) and a Hollywood producer (an occasionally outstanding Alan Arkin) — creates the lie which is Argo. Some of this creeps too much into Hollywood-insider type of humor, but there’s a nice affection for the movies on display here, plus the film’s strongest bits of comedic levity. Once the film shifts primarily to Iran, the picture turns into a political thriller, and while often crisp and fast-paced, Argo very nearly veers off the rails.
The climax, which consists of a compacting series of near misses and close calls, attempts to stack suspense on top of suspense. Unfortunately, things get a bit out of hand, and while it’s never too silly, Affleck manages to strain credulity almost to its breaking point. All of the tension Argo is intent on supplying doesn’t quite work, since the film is a bit too predictable. When I caught the film in Toronto, there was a big kerfuffle over the film soft-pedaling Canada’s involvement in the whole affair, with eventual admissions that the bulk of the movie was made up. This was none too surprising since the film makes it apparent early on that nothing awful or horrendous will happen to any of the characters. Because of this, there’s a constant sense that the film is working toward something undeserved, unrealistic and pat. None of this keeps Argo from its sole purpose — to exist as a well-made piece of satisfying filmmaking. Within those aims, Affleck’s film is a success (and, I suspect, will be popular), but if you’re looking for anything greater, you’ll likely be disappointed. Rated R for language and some violent images.
Playing at Carolina Asheville Cinema