Recent years have proven really interesting with regards to films rooted in real events. Living in the capital-I “Information Age” means any overcaffeinated eight-year old with an iPhone can readily check a film’s accuracy as it screens before their eyes, calling into question exactly what responsibility filmmakers bear to reality. Do they stick to it in a beat-for-beat, nearly verbatim manner at the possible expense of momentum and energy, or leap off the deep-end into damn-near fabrication, in service of artistry? Ben Affleck’s “Argo” may be the best case for the latter option since 2010’s “The Social Network”, a film notoriously riddled with holes and lies that nevertheless endures as one of the peaks of 21st century filmmaking and writing. “Argo” doesn’t quite reach those heights, but then, it’s a different kind of toy.
“Argo” has a lot on its plate, elements of which often contradict itself: it’s a Hollywood satire bankrolled by its most successful studio, a work about a politically volatile scenario that still must remain ideologically neutral, and a nail-biting thriller with moments of comedic relief. How Ben Affleck cuts these together in a technically & tonally consistent way, all while playing the lead role in the damn thing, is a mystery. And a minor miracle. He’s quickly approaching what could be considered territory rivaling the films of actor Robert Redford. I say “considered”, however, because in my eyes he’s already surpassed him.
The story of “Argo” was only declassified two presidencies ago, and even still it seems to be too good to be true. In the wake of angry Iranian crowds storming the American embassy in 1979 Tehran, six employees narrowly escape into the arms of a Canadian ambassador. Without much time before they’re found and almost certainly killed, a solution must be found and fast.
Enter Tony Mendez. Or, rather, Affleck, sporting 2012’s most glorious facial hair. He’s an American extraction expert, and is called in to assess the situation. His idea: go to Hollywood, create a fake production company with a big science-fiction epic as its crown jewel, and head to Iran to “film”, with the hidden employees posing as that film’s crew. It’s a big plan, a bold one. And the fact that as director, Affleck manages insanely suspenseful sequences heading towards an outcome that 90% of the audience already knows? Unheard of.
The high-caliber skill with which “Argo” is handled technically, however, highlights its shortcomings in another, equally weighty arena: emotional. Chris Terrio’s script provides a lot of varied bit roles and a lot of meaty, punchy dialogue for them to say to each other. This said, very few people actually seem to develop or expand in meaningful ways, leaving “Argo” as a men-on-a-mission film much more about the mission than the men. This would be fine if the half-assed attempts to humanize Mendez weren’t made, and one wonders exactly how we were meant to see the character — more specifically, how large a role preconceived notions of Ben Affleck were meant to play. He’s a charismatic presence, but the hazy context rendered him a slightly distant one for me.
Backing him is an ace lineup of supporting players, to be sure — Bryan Cranston kills it as Mendez’s eternally agitated CIA superior, John Goodman and Alan Arkin are hilarious as his crafty Hollywood correspondents, and Michael Parks, Phillip Baker Hall and Kyle Chandler all make welcome appearances. These are the sort of snappy supporting roles we always crave as filmgoers, all under one convenient cinematic roof.
“Argo” barrels towards its finale breathlessly, certain details of which could prompt potential calls for historical fact-checking. But then…would you really have it any other way? “Argo” plays it fast and loose with facts, sure, but its grip on cinematic tension’s attack-and-release structure is tighter than any out there. It exists at a near-perfect intersection of writing, directing and acting, and serves as another strong showcase for a talent who, 14 years after snagging an Oscar, is finding his voice and his pace. B+