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.
Affleck's character's greatest apparent virtue is competence; so is Argo's.
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.