Saturday, November 10, 2012

Argo

Argo is the third film directed by Ben Affleck, and the first not set in Boston. The "recently declassified" story of a bizarre CIA mission to rescue six Americans trapped in Teheran at the Canadian Embassy during the Iranian Hostage Crisis is a step up in ambition and tone for Affleck, who to date has specialized in agreeably roughneck crime stories. (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) Argo doesn't boast a performance as memorable as work by Amy Ryan or Jeremy Renner in Affleck's earlier films, but it marks Affleck as a major director with a sense of engagement towards the way institutions treat the people that sustain them.

Affleck plays a CIA agent named Tony Mendez, a specialist in "exfils" (getting people out of tight corners) who takes on the Teheran job after the State Department fails to come up with a plan. Mendez's idea includes a fictional science fiction movie called Argo, cooked-up resumes for the stranded Americans (who become members of a Canadian film crew on a location scout), and the involvement of a makeup artist (John Goodman) who becomes the CIA's entree to Hollywood. With the help of a producer (a fun Alan Arkin) with a gift for bluster, the CIA is soon underwriting a production company and holding a table reading (in costume?) of the Argo script. Hollywood satire is just Affleck's stepping-stone to get to a thriller plot, but I couldn't help but want more of Arkin and Goodman's sense of fun. They're absent from the movie for a long stretch and I found myself wondering what they were up to.

 We never get to know the six Americans Mendez rescues that well, though Scoot McNairy stands out as the one least bullish on Mendez's plan. (I also wanted to know more about Clea Duvall's character, who is tasked with becoming the fake movie's screenwriter.) At a certain point Argo slows down, as the story becomes dependent on Mendez's boss (a fine, harried Bryan Cranston) to keep the mission alive and the Iranians not to figure out the Americans' identities in time. Affleck makes the Americans' final journey through the Teheran airport a marvelous bit of controlled tension, and the final sprint to freedom is genuinely rousing. Argo may be a story more about process than people, but Affleck has an eye for details that gives the movie humanity. Cranston laces his character's sense of duty with a great workaday cynicism, and there's more suggestion of rivalries between government agencies than the movie has time for. I'm late reviewing Argo, but for those who haven't seen it the movie is well worth your time, a smart adult entertainment with a soft spot for what's best about us.

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