Ben Affleck's Argo is a very good new movie about a very fake old movie, one "made" in Iran during the volatile infant months of the Iranian Republic. Animated storyboard sketches at the beginning of the film offer a colourful crash course on Iran's revolutionary history up to late 1979 -the waning months of the Carter administration-, before Affleck jumps head first into his retelling of one thread in the Iranian Hostage Crisis, which saw 52 American embassy workers held captive for over a year.
The opening sequence is electric, showing hundreds of outraged students surrounding the embassy in Tehran, and the workers inside nervously appraising the situation. The only thing keeping them together is the knowledge that the embassy is American soil, guarded by marines, gates, and high walls. Then, the unthinkable happens: one of the protesters climbs over the wall. Then another. And another, leading to a full-on invasion of the embassy. Much like the barbwire over the walls, the soldiers are only there to be a discouraging presence, not an actual defence; any shots fired would risk starting a war, leaving the Americans scrambling to destroy documents moments before their capture.
An imagined sense of security is the first of many disguises, lies and imitations that constitute Argo's key fascination: falsehoods. When six of the Americans manage to flee to the home of an ambassador, the C.I.A. throws together a plan to exfiltrate the group by claiming they're a Canadian film crew, in Iran to scout locations for a new Star Wars rip-off, titled "Argo". The operation depends on creating a ruse so elaborate, and so intricate, that the mission's leader, Tony Mendez (Affleck), will be able to walk the fugitives -using assumed identities- through Tehran's heavily-guarded international airport, and onto a plane back home.
Fake people and fake organizations with real motives all collide, and the most impactful objects aren't guns, they're stamps giving a seal of authenticity. The constant subterfuge creates a tonal dichotomy of tension and farce, with all the characters spinning their own brand of bullshit in order to save lives. Argo welcomely embraces the bullshit though, particularly in its second act, when Mendez brings in a Hollywood makeup artist (John Goodman) and an influential producer (Alan Arkin) to make his phoney movie look like the real deal. While the situation in Iran only intensifies the longer the Americans stay in hiding, the L.A. crew preps the rescue as if it were a human-heist movie. Titles like Mendez's Six, or The Tehran Job come to mind.
Argo's mix of levity and suspense makes for a propulsive brio, but one that can create jarring contrast, such as a sequence that intercuts a convention-worthy table read of the fake movie's script, with hostages being lined up against a firing wall. While the Wag the Dog-style interplay between the entertainment business and covert government agencies is often very funny, it's sandwiched neatly between the dire opening, and the intense final third, which is mostly humourless, as it focusses on Mendez working with the hostages on their cover identities.
Mendez provides as much an anchor as can be expected from a story that's more about events and environments than people, but Affleck makes him a compelling master of deception. The biggest lie he has to tell the rattled hostages is that he knows they'll make it out alright. Of course, history has already spoiled the end of the operation for us, so Argo tries to compensate by layering onto the facts with some additional fiction, which can undercut your appreciation for seeing real events recreated when the script feels the need to embellish them.
But this is a crowed-pleaser, through and through, an Apollo 13 for the politically minded, and Affleck only ever feints at trying to deliver something more than a supremely well-executed thriller. In a recent interview, Paul Thomas Anderson claimed that having great actors was the key to his success, and if that's the bedrock for one of this generation's most celebrated directors, then it's no surprise that Affleck has managed such a strong career behind the camera, thanks to the kind of talent he can bring along with him. The actors are all excellent (Bryan Cranston in particular, as Tony's spitfire of a boss), the script is clean when doling out exposition, yet punchy when it needs to be, and Affleck directs everything with a sure hand.
And it's that slavish devotion to making high-grade product out of a familiar formula that makes Argo exceptionally good, but never great. When its blend of cloak 'n' dagger and showbiz bravado is really crackling, the film is effortlessly enjoyable, but one might hope a story of such great risks would merit a few of its own in the adaptation. I don't want to sound like i'm slagging on Affleck, but if he were to try pretending that he really is America's next great director -not simply its most reliable-, than he might turn out to be just that. Sometimes, you gotta fake it before you can make it.
4 out of 5
Directed by Ben Affleck