With themes that strike unnervingly close to today’s zeitgeist, Argo smartly takes the path of an old-fashioned thriller to unveil the neverending turmoil of international relations. A movie about the power of movies, Ben Affleck’s third feature uses all the tropes of classic suspense and humor to tell what otherwise could have been a limp historical recreation or didactic lecture on a horrifying time in American history. The world has changed quite a bit since the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran – technological, economical, and social – yet many might argue it’s remained exactly the same. What has endured for certain are motion pictures and the reasons people are drawn them.
After America accepts the exiled Shah of Iran onto their soil, protestors storm the American embassy to hold people hostage as a way of coaxing America into giving him back. All but six people are taken by Iranian extremists, when they flee unseen to the home of the Canadian ambassador. Argo focuses on the bizarre mission to free those six people. Lead by CIA agent, Tony Mendez (Affleck), Americans stage a fake movie, fit with big-name fake producers and make-up artists, and pretend to go into the fractured nation on a location scout. In a tense, down the wire, escape mission, Mendez drops into Iran, convinces the hostages to believe in his cockamamie idea and flies them back to America. The mission remains classified for 17 years, before Mendez or any other hero involved can take credit for its existence.
The frightening telecasts of the event in Iran play as constant background tension throughout Argo. At one point someone says, “I wonder if they’re doing it for the camera.” In many ways, this line sums up the strength of the entire movie. In an age of technological footprints and national self-expression, respect has been measured by how much you appear to be strong. Iranians were angrily hurting and now with the power of cameras watching their every move, they seem destined to broadcast there inner fight to the world. Argo’s as much about how the power of an image, or the fantasy of media, can impact our emotions as it is about the history involved. Affleck brilliantly keeps tension high, especially in the second half, while also walking the tight rope of humor and sentimentality.
The editing of Argo is a sight to behold, an effort that should become textbook for pacing multiple disparate tones into one cohesive whole. They’ll teach film students that narratives should be subjective and main characters clear, but Argo breaks all of these rules with precision. An ensemble piece through and through, the weight of the world truly feel like the stakes in this picture. Often times we have no idea who characters are, but the point is who they represent. In some ways, Argo succeeds at telling us this is “one world,” thus we should be kinder to each other. What everybody seems to be positively affected by are the movies. Whenever the picture strays too far into comedy its yanked back into suspense. If it becomes too much a retelling of facts it jumps back to in-the-moment characterizations. The waves of this pictures are woven as beautifully as any movie I’ve ever seen like this. In fact, maybe I’ve never seen another movie like this.
Argo’s greatest weakness is its lead character. Affleck plays Mendez as a flat, stiff man who anchors the film, but feels like a dead weight rather than an electrifying leader. As a result, each time the other parts of this brilliant cast (especially Alan Arkin and John Goodman) are on-screen, they wrench the film away from our hero. While Affleck’s never been a very strong actor, he seems to be actively choosing to play Mendez as a passive character, a choice that’s befuddling considering the visionary plan the man concocts. Perhaps sticking to the reality of who Mendez is, Affleck’s performance can’t entirely be overcome by his stunning directing, the sharp editing, and all the other exquisite craft in Argo.
If you have reservations about seeing a historical movie or watching another “Ben Affleck” flick, check them at the door because Argo delivers some of the very best performances (with the unfortunate exception of its lead) and some of the most edge-of-your-seat moments you’ll see all year. Like the mission in the movie, the plot of Argo is a courageous look at the past and how it reflects our present. It’s also an ode to the cinema, in all its fantastical glory. [B+]