Ben Affleck’s gradual rise from the “Gigli” debacle to alpha-director-status is doubtlessly one of Hollywood’s best comebacks. And yet, the actor-director faces his toughest challenge yet with “Argo,” out in theaters today, a fresh take on a controversial international affairs incident.
Six American diplomats stuck inside Tehran during the 1979-80 events there (hostage crisis, etc.) are rescued by a CIA extraction team under the pretense that they’re shooting a fake sci-fi film. Protests in Tehran had erupted after Reza Pahlavi’s U.S asylum request was approved, which made any Americans living in Iran at the time fair game. Affleck imparts suspense and a knowing sense of humor to this film, which is based on a true story, but oddly enough he doesn’t seem to always have care.
I wanted to love this film but ultimately I just respected it.
Exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (played by Affleck himself) is called into by the CIA to discuss a plan for getting the Americans, who have been hiding for sixty-nine days at the residence of the Canadian Ambassador, out of the country. The best idea they’d come up with was to supply them with bikes in the hope that they could pedal fast to the Turkish border. Tony has a better way, a lightbulb moment which came to him one night while watching “Planet of the Apes.” Disguise the hostages as a fake Canadian film crew scouting Iran for locations to film their next B-grade sci-fi movie.
This is an insane plan that has almost no chance of working but he gets special effects wizard John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to back him, and before long things are set in motion. Time is, of course, of the essence here and so Tony’s boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), tries to keep everyone and everything on track.
Affleck does a fantastic job of detailing the dangerous powder keg of the Iranian riots, among others through the use of old news footage of what was happening close to the ground and the growing anti-Iranian sentiment that the crisis caused in America. The Hollywood segments are played for laughs, poking fun at the soullessness of the business. Arkin and Goodman nail down the comic relief roles perfectly.
There’s also a huge emphasis on showing the risk that these people took, to the point where you want to tell Affleck “we get it.” What you would like to see more of is how each character evolved through this. Tony and Lester bonding over being divorcees is about all you have, particularly disappointing is the fact that screenwriter Chris Terrio hardly ever gives us any insight into the hostages or embeds them with emotional resonance.
“Argo” winds up being slightly less powerful than you would like it to be, although Affleck nails the ending, a heart-racing sequence of verifications at the airport where one wrong move at each check-point can spell “game over.” By the time it’s all over you wish the rest of the film had pulled at your heart even half as good as this final scene did.