Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
October 11, 2012
*** (out of four)
It’s not easy to make a reality-based, political, action-comedy that stretches from Tinseltown to Tehran and covers everything from Hollywood satire to public hangings.
In his first directorial effort not set in Boston, Ben Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town”) delivers a compelling movie, if not a perfect one. “Argo” leaves you wanting to know more, rather than feeling fully informed about an event that President Clinton declassified 15 years ago. Before your eyes glaze over at the phrase “Iran hostage crisis,” know that Affleck and writer Chris Terrio, working from an article by Joshuah Bearman, effectively loop in the historically uninformed to understand the movie’s setting without overdoing the info dump.
In late 1979, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) leads a rescue mission in Tehran when six Americans escape the U.S. embassy before rioters bust in as part of a protest to bring the ailing former leader Shah Reza Pahlavi back from exile in the U.S. to be tried and hanged.
No one would call Tony’s plan conventional. With help from Hollywood insiders (John Goodman, Alan Arkin) and his boss (Bryan Cranston), Tony will coach the Americans, now hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s house, to pose as a film crew scouting Middle Eastern locations for a movie called “Argo.” The sci-fi movie’s script exists, but no one has any intention of actually making the movie, which says something—of one film he’s working on, makeup artist John Chambers (Goodman) notes that the target audience will hate it. The target audience being, he says, “people with eyes.”
Affleck’s previous directorial efforts overflowed with emotional involvement, but “Argo” ping-pongs between funny and dramatic without allowing us to know its main characters especially well. The internal discussions that result in decisions and changes of plan within the CIA and state department fail to clarify many questions. Instead we get repeated comments about the operation’s small chances for success and arguments with lines like, “I want you to do your [bleeping] job!”
The action in “Argo” may not crackle like that of “The Town,” but this is a historical event and not an action movie, even if at times Affleck labors to turn “Argo” into one. He delivers a quick, entertaining two hours, offering unembellished heroism and loads of tension while our country works to protect its own without compromise or violence.
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