A Plan So Crazy... It Might Just Work
After a series of high-profile acting mega-flops, Ben Affleck proudly emerged as a director of smart and well-crafted Hollywood thrillers with the pretty great Gone Baby Gone and the pretty good The Town. Finally abandoning his beloved Boston, Argo is not necessarily a radical departure for Affleck, but it is still a work on a grander and more ambitious scale than his previous work. While there's no doubt it's still a superior, engaging political thriller, there's also something a tad underwhelming about Argo on the whole.
As pretty much everyone talking about this film will feel the need to point out, it's based on a true story. The setting is Iran in 1979, and the American embassy in Tehran is being attacked by locals. They aren't best pleased their despised former Shah has taken shelter in the US. The occupants of the embassy are taken hostage, but six (played by some vaguely familiar faces, including Scoot McNairy) manage to escape through the backdoor and hide out in the Canadian Ambassador's (Victor Garber) residence. Three months later, Tony Mendez (Affleck) of the CIA comes up with a full-on crazy scheme to get them out - send a fake science-fiction film into production (Argo), ensure the Iranians believe it's a full-fledged Hollywood production, and then smuggle the six Americans out of the country disguised as Canadian location scouters. Mendez and his superior Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) just need to convince their superiors that it's the least risky rescue plan. Oh, and they also need to, you know, pull it off.
It's a strange thing to point out, but the attention to detail in Argo is easily its strongest asset. From the early presence of the classic 1970s Warner Bros. logo, Affleck makes no effort to disguise his influences. This is a political thriller in the vein of countless 70s/80s classics, All the Presidents Men et al. All the iconography and familiar sights are here - from thick rimmed glasses to clunky technology and 4:3 televisions. Both computer and practical effects are utilised to convincingly recreate locations both American and Iranian - the film is so proud of this it actually shows us side by side comparisons during the closing credits. Such obsession with accuracy even directly affects the plot - Iran's alcohol ban is cleverly integrated into the script at several dramatic junctures. Heck, even the cast are made up to accurately resemble their real life counterparts.
The film's unusual tonal delivery is Argo's second greatest strength (barring the fascinating story itself, of course, but that's a given). The film flirts with several different tones and even genres throughout. On one hand, it's very much a Cold War era political thriller. It's full of intrigue, dramatic complications and suspenseful set pieces (the opening embassy invasion is particularly great). Yet, for a film tackling such a serious subject matter, it's also surprisingly funny. A considerable portion of the second act is given over to a lighthearted but entertaining satirising of late 70s / early 80s Hollywood, encompassing bad sci-fi, worse producers and a general air of phoniness. Chris Terrio's script is full of great lines - "Argo fuck yourself!" - and the film overall manages to both thrill and amuse in equal measure. Argo enthusiastically embraces both the absurdity and danger of the reality it recreates.
And yet... there's something perfunctory about Argo at the same time. Affleck's direction has yet to evolve into anything more than workmanlike - Argo is visually unambitious and lacking in depth. He does a generally good job with the ensemble cast (which also includes John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Mendez's Hollywood contacts), but none of the actors really step above and beyond their usual familiar 'types'. Cranston comes out most favourably, particularly due to his convincingly manic panic during the third act, but few of the performances here are anything more than reliably solid.
Terrio's script, meanwhile, is uneven. For all its good work, there are times when the script's inner-workings are distractingly obvious - especially during a tense but extremely contrived climax (oh, just get to the fucking phone already!). Most of all, the film's patriotism and unbalanced portrayal of the Iranian people is a bit disappointing. Now: of course given the story it has to be told through an American point-of-view. But after seeing the likes of Persepolis, it's hard to deny that Argo's representation of a country in political and social crisis is one-dimensional. The final scene (after a brief series of false endings) even features some explicit flag-waving. This is easily one of the most pro-American films Hollywood has produced recently. Although, for the sake of fairness, it's also right to point out it's probably the most pro-Canadian film Hollywood has ever produced. Go Canada!
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't left slightly underwhelmed by Argo, but that could be due to the critical fervor that it has already been greeted with. Credit where credit is due, though: it's almost undeniably a smart, entertaining and brilliantly detailed thriller. It may not be a truly great film, but it's certainly a very good one. At the very least, it's a worthy big screen recreation of an incredible story. Fact can sometimes be so much more entertaining than fiction.