Ben Affleck's thriller is tense and topical but strangely one-dimensional.
The end credits for Argo—director/star Ben Affleck's chronicle of the CIA's 1980 rescue of six Americans trapped in Tehran in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis—roll with a slideshow comparing shots from the film with archival photos of the events the film depicts. The unfortunate coiffures of US embassy workers, the angle at which a veil-wearing Iranian held her firearm: Nearly every visual detail in Argo, we learn, was true to life. It's a striking display of meticulousness, this credits sequence, and you can't help but leave the theater impressed.
Then again, "impressed" seems to be what Affleck aims for at all moments of Argo: knowing head nods from audience members realizing they're in the presence of an excellently constructed thriller telling an important story. And for the most part, he'll get those nods—both from viewers and from awards-doling organizations come winter. But there's something hollow to Affleck's achievement here. In executing a film that's about execution, he leaves the many of the humans at the center of this extraordinary real-life story feeling, well, unreal.
To be sure, he's chosen a rich, topical moviemaking subject. A frustrated Middle-Eastern populace boiling up in demonstration; a US embassy in the Muslim world sacked; a high-stakes covert operation that goes right—these are motifs from recent headlines and from Argo. After a cartoon storyboard history lesson on pre-revolutionary Iranian history, we're whisked into America's Tehran embassy, November 1979, outside of which protesters raise clamor in hopes of getting America to send back the deposed Shah. You know how the story goes. Iranians breach the gates and seize the facility, taking dozens of Americans into custody for a hostage standoff that lasts 444 days and, arguably, ends the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Affleck nails the horrific anticipation that must have suffused embassy workers in those final moments before the breach: the scramble to shred sensitive info and the sinking realization that no cavalry is on its way. A presumed receptionist works the phones as chaos closes in, until finally she must hang up as worried recognition crosses her face: They're here.
Six diplomatic workers avoid capture and sneak into the streets, making their way to the Canadian embassy. With the locals having developed, as one character puts it, a craving for American blood with their breakfast cereal, the six are trapped. Grim headlines and grimmer imagery of bodies swinging from construction cranes make clear that to leave the Canadian compound would mean death. They'll have to wait for rescue.
The plot to extract the six is also rich moviemaking material, as it's about moviemaking. CIA agent Tony Mendez—played by Affleck in one of the sole, telling instances of ahistorical casting—whips up a plan to fly into the country while pretending to be a Canadian location scout for a Hollywood sci-fi film, meet with the six and impart on them fake movie-crew identities, and fly out. To pull the thing off and fool the Revolutionary Guards, realism—imagine that!—is key: setting up a Hollywood shell company, enlisting a star producer, gaining some industry-press buzz. It's in showing these preparations that Argo is at its warmest, with the cynical but affable Hollywood hand played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin's hilariously hardass producer quipping about the movie biz being just as perilous as Iran—or, more to the point, Washington, D.C.
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The two showmen, somewhat ironically and somewhat appropriately, stand as the film's only characters. Though flamboyant, they're people we feel like we might know, whose motivations and mannerisms are, by the end, graspable. The rest of the ensemble cast—from Affleck's strong-and-silent operative to Bryan Cranston as a put-upon CIA admin to Victor Garber as the nervously noble Canadian ambassador—are well-drawn plot devices: correctly costumed, smartly scripted, and precisely acted to move the story along. The few scenes filling out Affleck's character's relationship with his son and estranged wife are literally phoned in and figuratively limp. Worse, the six escapees, even when stewing and bickering, feel weirdly anonymous. At one point during a CIA briefing, some spook posts up their mugs and reads off each's personality profile: Here's the smart one, here's the oddball. It's telling-not-showing reductio ad absurdum.
Of course, skimping on characterization to get to the storyline goodies isn't the worst thing when you've got a storyline as inherently fascinating as this one is. Affleck wants Argo to be a thriller, and it does thrill, with the danger quotient ratcheted up repeatedly by encircling Iranian forces and bungling back home. For all its setting's verisimilitude, the screenplay ditches historical facts whenever the energy could flag. In the film's latter half, three closely nested sequences have the heroes avoiding catastrophe by seconds, and each instance sends both heart rates and eyebrows skyward. That's fine; that's moviemaking—Arkin's character would be proud.
But there's a missed opportunity here to shed some insight on this gutsy operation instead of merely restaging it with even more drama. The three months of captivity in the Canadian embassy were tense, yes—but what else? How did the six come to relate to one another? Mendez pulled off something incredible, yes—but how, exactly? What made him the man for the job? In the end, as its credits suggest, the effect of watching Argo isn't that far off from the effect of watching news footage: For all the vicarious zing and cocktail-party-trivia delivered, the humans on screen remain unknowable. Moviemaking can achieve more. But maybe the whole point is that Affleck hits the relatively low target he sets for himself. His character's greatest apparent virtue is competence; so is Argo's.