Ben Affleck's third directing effort, Argo, is funnier than expected, is expertly paced, and has a fantastic 70s look (the most convincing since Zodiac), plus knockout supporting performances by Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, and John Goodman in very colorful roles and Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, and Clea Duvall in much subtler (at times almost colorless) ones. It’s not the perfectly carved gem you’ve heard it described as in the reviews, but it’s very good, and it's honorable in ways I didn’t expect. I don’t give star ratings, but afterward, I thought it was the very definition of a three-star movie. There’s nothing hugely wrong with it, and for the most part it’s a pleasurable thriller that had considerable potential to be exploitative but resisted the urge to do so. But there's a great or at least highly unusual film struggling to get out of this one, and it never quite escapes.
Written by Chris Terrio, Argo concerns a CIA plot to free six Americans who escaped the takeover of the US embassy after Iranian militants seized it in 1979, then hid in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Affleck’s character, agent Tony Mendez, pretended to be a producer scouting locations for a Star Wars ripoff titled Argo (a script that actually existed). Then he enlisted four movie producers (represented by Arkin’s composite character, Lester Siegel) plus makeup artist John Chambers, an Oscar-winner for Planet of the Apes, to help him create media “evidence” that the picture was actually in production and figure out which of the hostages should pretend to be which film crewmembers touring Iran. The top secret Argo operation was only declassified in 1997, and after its successful conclusion, Mendez had to go through the mordantly funny ritual of being awarded a medal for outstanding service, then handing it back immediately and swearing never to speak of the operation again.
Affleck directed the excellent Gone Baby Gone and the engrossing and incredibly corny The Town; he’s a handsome, capable actor-filmmaker of a sort that has many cinematic precedents. He could be another Robert Redford or Kevin Costner, or maybe (if he’s willing to go weird now and again), a Cornel Wilde. By that, I mean Affleck’s a solid, likable leading man, but not an amazing one, and his style consists mainly of sensible craft. Quotable lines abound: "John Wayne's in the ground six months, and this is what happens to America," Arkin’s producer grumbles, watching TV news coverage of America losing its collective shit over the hostage crisis. "Target audience will hate it," Chambers tells Mendez, describing a cheap sci-fi film he’s working on. Mendez: "Who's the target audience?" Chambers: "People with eyes." The film’s sense of humor—knowing but incredibly dry, like David Fincher’s, but without the undertone of perverse darkness—is its greatest asset. The suspense sequences are a close second. During the film’s climax, Affleck makes a simple scene of a Swiss Air employee checking a passenger manifest thrilling, and he does it through very basic directing techniques: cunningly-judged cross-cuts, tight close-ups of faces and hands. Argo seems like the kind of movie that comes on TV while you're trying to get something done—you don't get it done because you have to watch the whole thing.
That's not the same thing as saying Argo is a masterpiece, though. Alexander Desplat's score leans on faux-Arabian Nights instrumentation and percussion, aural cliches that are frankly beneath a composer of his wit and passion. The script drops hints that the film will explore reality/fantasy, being/performing, but it never follows through. We see the hostages (including DuVall and Donovan) learning to play their parts, struggling with back stories and lines while Affleck “directs” them, but we never get a sense that the challenge affects them psychologically, beyond burdening them with homework while they’re trying to escape a nation in turmoil. Maybe this is a fair approach, but it’s disappointing because so often the situations and lines promise something deeper. The notions don't coalesce; they just hang there, like sub-narrative clotheslines on which deadpan one-liners can be affixed. And if director/star Ben Affleck and company were going to take liberties with the historical record—all movies do, don't mistake me for a historical literalist, please!—I wish they'd given the hostages and the Iranians one or two more good scenes to develop their personalities, maybe at the expense of all the "Tony Mendez loves his son" material, which, while sincere, didn't add much to the story or themes, and could have been deleted. (And why not cast a Latino actor in this part? Benicio Del Toro might've gotten a second Oscar if he'd starred in this.)
Nevertheless, the grainy CinemaScope, period rock, giant mustaches, wide lapels, Hollywood insider humor, vintage "Nightline" clips, and a soupçon of historical/political context all tickled my ‘70s-kid pleasure centers without devolving into meaningless nostalgia. I expected a handsome but bloodless HBO docudrama-type thing, but Argo delivered more than that in every department, so watching it was like opening a box of Crackerjacks and finding a bunch of prizes inside. I loved the semi-storyboarded prologue summing up several decades of Iranian history; Black Sunday and Green Zone, to name just two mainstream Hollywood suspense pictures set in the Middle East, didn't bother with that kind of thing. And I liked that Argo gave us a little scene at the end showing that the young woman who bluffed the security people at the Canadian ambassador’s front gate got out, too, even though she ended up in Iraq; a lot of films about Yanks in turmoil-ridden countries forget that the nonwhite bit players are anything other than means to white folks’ ends.
Affleck's not the second coming of Orson Welles, or even Clint Eastwood—not yet, anyway—but he hasn't made a bad film yet. I wouldn't storm any gates if Argo won Oscars. It's not especially deep, but it is witty and exciting and it doesn’t make you hate yourself for enjoying it, and it tells a story you probably haven’t heard before. I’d like to see a sequel about what happened to the Canadian embassy employee in Iraq. Did she survive the Iran-Iraq war? Was she still around during the first and second Gulf Wars? Has she seen Argo?
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.