A caper flick grafted onto historical events, a winking inside-showbiz satire and an exercise in inspirational patriotism, Argo is a movie of many parts, the sum of which can probably be best described as enjoyable Hollywood hokum. From screenwriter Chris Terrio’s self-consciously snappy dialogue to the amped-up thriller climax, actor-director Ben Affleck’s third feature succeeds as a savvy, facile crowd-pleaser by hewing closely to the same Hollywood conventions that it mildly mocks.
Give Affleck and fellow producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney chutzpah points for trying to apply this Howard Hawks-style workplace-comedy approach to such a catastrophic event as the 1979 Iranian revolution and U.S. hostage-taking. (As they proved with 2009’s The Men Who Stare At Goats, Clooney and Heslov have a fondness for oddball espionage.) Based on information that was declassified in 1997, the story of the rescue of six Americans who were hiding in the residence of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) is so improbable that it sounds as though it were invented by Hollywood – which, in fact, it partly was.
Affleck plays the CIA’s Tony Mendez (sporting a Doobie Brothers beard and shaggy mane), a hard-drinking, brashly insolent expert in “exfiltrating” – getting people out of sticky situations. In a CIA where the dialogue consists of snappy rejoinders and pungent obscenities, Mendez breezily shoots down his superiors’ suggestions for rescuing the six. Then, while watching a Planet of the Apes sequel, he gets an idea. He can liberate the Americans by having them pose as a film crew scouting locations for a movie being shot in the Middle East.
After flying to the West Coast, Tony meets with CIA-connected makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and curmudgeonly motormouth producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, in fine, salty form), who set him up with a script – a Star Wars knockoff called Argo – along with a publicity campaign. In short, the Hollywood veterans quickly school the CIA in the techniques of bluster and deception. Though Mendez’s agency overseers remain skeptical, the improbable ruse gets green-lighted. As his boss (Bryan Cranston) says, the Hollywood cover is “by far the best bad idea we have.”
As the voice-over prologue explains, the CIA has had some bad ideas before, including helping the 1953 coup that put the tyrannical and loathed shah in power. During the 1979 revolution, the Americans’ decision to harbour the cancer-ridden shah leads to a mob storming of the American embassy, a scene briskly re-enacted in the film’s opening moments. That sequence, along with later ones showing hooded hostages subjected to fake firing squads, try to lend some gravity as a counterweight to the movie’s prankish tone.
The movie’s second half, set over two days in Tehran, shot with lots of bouncy hand-held cameras in claustrophobic settings, aims at war-zone realism. Tony, arriving in Tehran as a fake movie producer, meets the incredulous four men and two women and tells them his plan. There’s a wealth of over-specific period detail: The characters tend to blur together in a haze of cigarette smoke, big hair, oversized glasses and mustaches. In contrast to the dowdy, skittish diplomats, Affleck’s character oozes concern and professional sang-froid (“This is what I do,” he reassures them). Affleck even manages to slip in a brief shirtless shot, to show his character gets in gym time between whisky and rescue missions.
As Argo rushes toward its obstacle-course climax, the story becomes increasingly fictionalized, with last-minute phone calls, cross-cut action, dread-filled delays and angry guards shouting in unsubtitled Farsi. All of this pumps up the adrenaline, but numbs the brain in an onslaught of conventional thriller filler. It’s too bad. There’s a great shaggy dog story at the heart of Argo and it’s a pity it couldn’t be rescued from of all the sort-of, kind-of, inspired-by conventional trappings.