The newest film by Chasing Amy* star Ben Affleck is notable for many reasons, not least in that it has broken the director’s run of continuous 94%s on Rotten Tomatoes.
Whether it is an objectively better film that either Gone Baby Gone or The Town is open to debate. Argo tells the “real life” story of CIA office Tony Mendez, played by Affleck himself, and his operation to rescue six hostages who escaped from the storming of the US Embassy in 1970s Iran by posing as the crew of a science fiction film.
So far so Wag the Dog.
Indeed, Argo bears more similarities with this work of satire – in which a spin-doctor orchestrates a fake war with the aid of a Hollywood producer in order to divert attention from a Presidential indiscretion during a reelection campaign – than ‘All the President’s Men’, which it harks back to stylistically. John Chambers, who won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes, as played by John Goodman and film producer, Lester Seigel, as played by Alan Arkin, are both recruited by Mendez into his harried superior O’Donnell describes as “the best bad plan we have”.
The whole thing is a slick production within as well as without: Goodman and Arkin have some great exchanges in the commissioning of the plan – “You’re worried about the Ayatollah, try the WGA!” – as the film periodically cuts to the plight of the hostages to remind us that the clock is ticking.
The film is not as much a whitewash as it might have been in terms of portraying America’s precipitation of the Iran crisis: A expository prologue done in the style of cinematic story boards provides context to the historical events, including the US’ sheltering of Iran’s deposed Shah, having previously deposed his democratically elected predecessor.
Nevertheless, Affleck’s Mendez is a straightforward and unambiguous hero with an estranged wife and son he doesn’t see enough of, and the Iranian people are alternatingly either a senseless mob or ruthless torturers obsessed with capturing agents of The Great Satan. Affleck is competent in the role, but hasn’t given himself much to work with. He’s hardly Eric Bana’s tormented assassin in Spielberg’s Munich, and, indeed, the film never aspires to such.
Argo has been described by some as a caper film, which is very much in evidence, and it never aims to be much more. Scott McNairy goes some way to providing depth to at least one of the hostages, that of Joe Stafford, who doesn’t immediately put his trust in the shady Mendez or his unlikely plan.
Even so, the film lacks almost any of the ambivalence or darkness of Affleck’s earlier efforts, though it’s arguably the most focused picture of the three with the most definite idea of what it wants to be; however, (relatively) meager its ambitions. Of Affleck’s directorial trifecta, ‘Argo’ seems the least likely to endure in memory; competently executed and stylistically faithful though it may be. It’s been described as Lumet lite and that seems apt.
Still, as the saying going, that’s entertainment!
* If it seems dismissive to refer to Affleck as such, it’s perhaps because his acting career would seem to be of little note apart from Hollywoodland and Good Will Hunting. Despite the reservations expressed above, his directorial career seems far more promising.