‘Argo’ deftly drums up suspense but leaves character depth thin
Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort Argo is a tightly woven anecdote to history that utilizes a stranger than fiction preposterousness to strong crowd pleasing effect. The declassified true story reveals the unorthodox ingenuity involved in the unlikely coordination between Hollywood and the CIA as they attempt a harrowing extraction of six Americans from the midst of Iranian political upheaval. The fast pace and efficient plot points don’t leave much room for characters to be more than their snappy lines but the film successfully entertains by seamlessly blending show business satire with white-knuckled intrigue.
In 1979, CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought on board to bring home a handful of Americans who narrowly evade being taken hostage at the American embassy in Iran following Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power and a shift towards Islamic fundamentalism. With the United States supporting the unpopular Shah, anti-American sentiment forces the escapees to indefinitely hole up in the home of the Canadian ambassador. While those employees who were left behind at the American embassy would become the center of an international spectacle, the forgotten Americans languished in secret isolation. The riotous danger outside as glimpsed on television and through slightly drawn curtains make the wait for help inside the Canadian ambassador’s house claustrophobically gripping. Even though the aggressive takeover of the embassy cements undeniably high stakes for getting the Americans out safely, our investment in them could have been improved by learning more than just the bullet points given in the brisk CIA run down of their case files. Those trapped are likeable enough to keep audiences engaged with their welfare but aren’t developed at any length to make any of them individually memorable. Character detail is kept understandably compact to keep the audience’s eye on Mendez’s thorough preparedness and his quiet but dexterous maneuvers of the Americans around Tehran and hopefully out of harm’s way.
The CIA throws around a number of asinine ideas before a cinematic vision dawns on Mendez- disguising the Americans as a Canadian film crew could fool the Iranian government if the details were counterfeited well enough. As the inspiration comes to him while watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Mendez promptly brings in the film’s prosthetics expert John Chambers (John Goodman) and a producer Lester Siegal (Alan Arkin). The duo help facilitate legitimate looking pre-production work and trade ads for a schlocky Sci-Fi script named Argo, selected not for quality but to fit the exact parameters of the mission. Bringing the ridiculous front for the rescue operation to fruition by way of slick Hollywood dealings adds a strangely satisfying levity into an otherwise grave undertaking. Thanks to the wisecracking deadpan delivery of Arkin and Goodman’s playful charm these comedic side notes to the serious task at hand endear instead of driving the movie off track. What does trouble the spirit of the film is the portrayal of the Iranian people. While it’s clear that there isn’t time for detours into diverse characterizations. more often than not they are depicted as an angry herd of humanity, seething with resentment and on the hunt for Western blood. While the complex reasons for their unrest are rendered understandable in the opening, they end up serving the plot primarily as a moving backdrop for the anxiety of our white protagonists.
Argo’s intensity is nourished by the presence of seasoned character actors filling in every last bit part. Zeljko Ivanek (Damages, 24, Homicide: Life on the Street), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Titus Welliver (Lost, Oz), Gary Coleman (Office Space) and Victor Garber (Alias) seal in the tension when the logistics of the operation are brought back to Washington. Their brief scenes leave one yearning to see them outside of stuffy offices with their talents unleashed. The best part of Affleck’s on-screen presence is that his public persona dissipates into the blur of action, taking a backseat to the perilous risk and letting the dreaded critical confrontations with authorities overwhelm concern. His performance and direction are proficient, steady and confident. Gone from this movie is any trace of himself- no roots from Boston or a meaty starring part that threatens to engulf the subject matter. In a pointed establishing shot acknowledging period- the famous Hollywood sign appears in disrepair with the neglected letters tumbled onto their sides and chipped away by time. What remains of Hollywood at that moment are the pros- those who still love to make movie magic even though the game has changed. Where Affleck in the past was disregarded for shallow pompousness, he is now coming into his own as a competent storyteller with a flair for boldly done drama. It’s a huge credit to Affleck that even if the climax Argo reaches is largely predictable, enough support is drummed up that by the time the action hits the tarmac, you’re ready to cheer purely for the feat of courage that allowed such a wacky collaboration to remotely take off.
– Lane Scarberry