Let’s make a fake movie.
In 1979, America faced one of the most intense international incidents it saw in the 20th century. For 444 days, dozens of Americans were held hostage in Tehran, Iran, with seemingly no hope of ever getting back home.
This is the backdrop for rising auteur Ben Affleck’s newest film, Argo, but it isn’t the plot. Affleck chose the more exciting, more glamorous B-plot to that tense episode, a top-secret (and since-declassified) mission by covert operatives to rescue six refugees from Tehran by faking a massive Hollywood film project.
“You have any of that blue meth?”
It’s hard to say just how true-to-life the plot is in Argo, named after the title of the fake movie not truly being produced – it was, after all, a classified mission. But Affleck’s dramatization of the events is fun when it needs to be, and its tension peaks at all the right points. At its essence, this is a caper movie, only the prize, rather than riches or revenge, is six American citizens being rescued from an incredibly hostile environment. As such, the film follows a rough formula, but it’s a good formula.
When the hostage situation for the six U.S. citizens who escaped the embassy proves to be outside the scope of standard rescue operations, Affleck’s character – Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfiltration” specialist – is forced to improvise. When he devises his plan, which involves faking the production of a big-budget sci-fi epic and pretending to scout locations in Tehran with the refugees as his crew, he is (requisitely, per the formula) laughed at and mocked by none other than Bryan Cranston. But of course, his idea eventually wins support – we wouldn’t have a movie, otherwise – and he gets in touch with some mid-level Hollywood filmmakers (John Goodman and Alan Arkin) to help him sell the idea.
The first half of the movie focuses on setting the con up: Mendez hits Hollywood and, along with his newfound glitterati friends and a small group of actors, stages press events (script readings, photo shoots, that sort of thing) to sell the film’s authenticity. With posters, storyboard and press clippings in hand (and a few fake Canadian passports), Mendez then travels to Tehran to save his countrymen. That’s when the tension starts.
The main thread throughout all this is Affleck, which is unfortunate. Well, “unfortunate” is an unfair way to put it: Affleck is a great actor, and he’s a phenomenal filmmaker – you may recall he wrote and directed the critically acclaimed films Gone Baby Gone and The Town before this. And from a stylistic point of view, Argo is one of the most impressive movies of the year, with excellent editing, a great script, and sharp emotional contrasts.
This is not a screen cap of the rehearsal script reading. There’s a completely different scene for that.
But what I’m getting at is, those emotions don’t come from Affleck the actor. He’s never been known as a charismatic actor, and here it’s no different: He seems to spend most of the film in his own head. Maybe he was going for realism, but Affleck plays his role so reserved through most of the movie that when he should appear charismatic – during the Hollywood scenes, for example – he comes across as just shy, and when tries to get intense – explaining the dangers of the plan to the refugees – it just feels out-of-character compared to the rest of the film. Argo runs about two hours, but a film like this can afford to be a little longer, and it would have been nice to have an extra 10 or 20 minutes’ worth of character development.
This isn’t Affleck’s fault as an actor, incidentally. The true story is pretty amazing, but its key moments, its most tense moments, are when the audience simply hopes nothing will happen, and it’s tough to make business-as-usual exhilarating. So, Affleck and the refugees travel through a crowded market, they check in at the airport, they board a plane, and they fly away. The fact that the movie can even hold the audience’s attention is an accomplishment, and that it is genuinely pulse-pounding and nerve-racking at times is a minor miracle.
Argo doesn’t quite have the emotional highs and lows you might expect from it, but that’s really the only knock against it, and compared to all the good things, it’s pretty minor. The film hits all its cues, if not quite hard enough, and there are long stretches of brilliance to be found.
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