By Bob Garver
It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t so long ago that Ben Affleck’s career was a joke. After his early success with “Good Will Hunting”, he went on to become an increasingly bland leading man that critics seemed to enjoy picking apart. He was also a fixture in gossip magazines for his alcoholism and troubled relationship with Jennifer Lopez. His professional and personal life collided badly in 2003’s “Gigli”, a film widely recognized as one of the worst of all time and was also blamed for his breakup with costar Lopez. But he turned things around in 2007, reinventing himself as a director with the acclaimed kidnapping mystery “Gone Baby Gone”. He proved this success was no fluke with 2010’s also-acclaimed “The Town”. Now comes “Argo”, a film so respectable that it has garnered more Oscar buzz than perhaps any other film this season. I won’t go so far as to say it deserves an Oscar, but it certainly solidifies Affleck’s newfound reputation as a competent and compelling director.
The film takes place during the Iran Hostage Crisis of the 1970s. Iranian militants storm the American Embassy in Tehran and overpower most of the building’s employees. However, six people escape and hide out in the home of a nearby Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). The CIA learns of the six escapees and brainstorms ideas for how to get them out of the country before they get killed. Specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) shoots down poor strategies like having the fugitives pretend to be teachers or enabling them to flee the country on bicycles. He decides that it will be much more plausible to have the targets pretend to be part of the production team for a cheesy sci-fi movie. His boss (Bryan Cranston) assures CIA brass that this overcomplicated plan is “the best bad idea we have”. The film is clearly trying to turn that particular line into a memorable and popular quote.
Mendez gets help from a movie-wise makeup artist (John Goodman) and a hustler producer (Alan Arkin). Together they set up a fake production company to halfway legitimize the phony credentials for the refugees. At this point the film detracts from the intense Iran storyline to allow the characters to exchange smart-aleck comments about the film industry. Many will say that these scenes add a refreshing levity to the otherwise serious tone of the film. I say they throw the film off balance, practically forgetting the urgency of the situation.
Eventually Mendez does fly out to Iran to rescue the refugees. They aren’t especially eager to go along with the plan, but once again nobody can think of anything better. I think the objections and mistrust are only in the film for dramatic effect to add an obstacle to the story since the plan actually unfolds rather smoothly. Everybody plays their parts coolly and the few snags are resolved quickly. The action comes down to Mendez and the refugees staying calm as they get through the various checkpoints while the Iranian bad guys recklessly rush after them trying and failing to catch up. It would obviously be impractical for such a true-to-life film to include an explosive final showdown, but it’s just not that thrilling when the characters do little more than run away.
To be sure, “Argo” is a well-made film, and Affleck deserves a lot of credit for his attention to detail in the dialogue and scenery. But I wouldn’t have put so much focus on the Hollywood people or even the CIA agents. To me, the most interesting aspect of the film is the escapees. I want to know how they coped with being trapped in that house knowing that capture and probably death was waiting for them outside? Sadly the film doesn’t touch nearly enough on the subject. “Argo” wastes an opportunity that I think it should have taken, but admittedly it does very well with the storyline it chooses to pursue.
Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
“Argo” is rated R for language and some violent images. Its running time is 120 minutes.