After three films Hollywood seems ready to proclaim Ben Affleck the next Clint Eastwood, the latest star to show true career-worthy talent as a director. Comparisons with Eastwood seem apt because Affleck is getting praise for an unpretentious, meat-and-potatoes narrative style in the classical tradition. I missed his two previous film but the historical subject matter of Argo attracted me. The film recounts the stranger-than-fiction story of how a CIA agent smuggled six fugitive Americans out of Iran at the height of the Hostage Crisis by posing as a movie producer scouting the country for locations. As the publicity emphasizes, Tony Mendez (Affleck) worked with known Hollywood talent, most notably Oscar-winning Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who had collaborated with CIA in the past. Mendez and Chambers realize that they first have to convince Hollywood that they intend to make a movie before the Iranians will believe them. With help from a crusty old producer (Alan Arkin) they craft an elaborate pre-production publicity campaign, including a public read-through of a script by actors in fantastic costumes. In early 1980 Iran is still in the early throes of revolution, but the country still wants to do business with foreigners, so Mendez can get his foot in the door. He somehow bamboozles the Iranians into believing that he has a six-person production team following him, but those six will actually be the Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy, whom he must rapidly train for their new roles. Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guard is close to realizing that they're short six Americans at the captured embassy, while the skeptical Americans are poised to shut down the Argo operation at any moment....
From what I've read, part of what made the actual Argo operation stranger than fiction was how easy it was. It was too easy for fiction, it seems, since Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio do everything in their power to turn the story into a race-against-time thriller. The proverbial clock is set ticking right at the start when a mob storms the American embassy. Diplomats shred documents identifying embassy personnel, but the Revolutionary Guard sets children to work carefully pasting pages together so that it'll only be a matter of time before the Iranians realize that six people got away. So of course the kids finally piece together a picture of one of the fugitives just as Mendez is herding them onto a Swissair flight, and just after the Iranians acquire reference photos of Mendez's production team from their visit to the Tehran bazaar. The timing is just too neat, too conveniently suspenseful, and Argo's efforts to juice up the story only make everything seem less plausible. By the time a Revolutionary Guard goon is placing a call to Mendez's alleged Hollywood office while Chambers is held up by a film shoot from returning from his lunch break to answer the phone and "verify" the existence of Mendez's production company, the Argo viewer is either uncritically captivated by it all, or he is grumbling, "Oh, give me a break!" The overdramatization of events undermines the climax by making it too climactic. Since the Iranians in this account actually realize that fugitive Americans are on that plane, they send jeeps and cop cars after the jet in a futile (but impressively shot) attempt to stop its takeoff. But if the Iranians knew then what was going on, and felt so strongly about Americans trying to escape, why didn't they send some fighters up to force the plane to land? They can't because we know the Americans made it home; the script can't change that.
But if Argo errs in overdramatizing some parts of the story, it may have been too reticent about fictionalizing other parts. One of the big selling points of the film was the idea of using Hollywood tactics against the Iranians, and that makes it disappointing to see the Goodman and Arkin characters relegated to the sidelines as worried cheerleaders once Affleck is off to Iran. If the film is going to deviate from what actually happened to any extent, why not go broad and entertain us with the oldschool Hollywood hucksters going head-to-head with gun-toting religious fanatics? But Argo ultimately takes itself too seriously as a life-and-death historical drama to be comfortable with the inherent humor of the Argo conspiracy. The uncertainty of tone comes through most clearly in a montage crosscutting between the in-costume read-through in Hollywood and a mock execution of American hostages at the embassy in Tehran. There's an irrepressible absurdity in the juxtaposition, but Affleck tries to smother it by having composer Alexander Desplat score the scene with lugubrious, lamenting music, foregrounding the agony of the hostages rather than the heroic ridiculousness of the Argo reading. When Affleck goes wrong, it's nearly always when he tries to humanize his characters with moments of feeling and sharing. None of it does much to make the fugitive Americans interesting characters. Affleck treats it as a big deal when the fugitive most skeptical toward the scheme and scared of exposure and execution proves the most adept and enthusiastic deceiver at the airport, but it only comes across as another arbitrary plot twist.
Affleck does a good job evoking 1980 with everything from hairstyles to Star Wars toys to the authentic period Warner Bros. logo, but it would go too far to say that he successfully imitated Seventies thrillers -- too many of those turn out badly for this happy-ending true story to fit the paradigm. As an actor Affleck is solid if not stolid as a stalwart agent, but as a director he can't make the scenes with Mendez's family seem more than obligatory yet superfluous. Apart from Desplat's limpid score the film has an interesting soundscape dominated by the authoritative voices of the TV anchormen of yore. Affleck has a good pictorial instinct but his pacing is transparently mechanical and risks awakening viewers to awareness of being manipulated. Yet I heard people in the multiplex theater with me responding just as Affleck would want, so at least he knows how to push the right buttons -- which is more than might be said for many more experienced directors. But let's not rush to label Argo a masterpiece. It's no more and no less than an entertaining journeyman entertainment with more than the average political conscious and a touch of political correctness (taking pains to note anti-Iranian violence in the U.S.) as well. It's too soon to say that Affleck has fulfilled the promise he'd already shown as a director, but despite its faults Argo proves that the promise is still there.