REVIEW: More Fine Filmmaking (But Not Acting) From Ben Affleck In Argo

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Argo review -- Ben Affleck

Argo is the story of a film that never existed, a Star Wars rip-off set in a sci-fi world with a conveniently Middle Eastern feel. If the movie ever actually made it into production, it looks like the kind of thing you'd stumble upon while doing some insomnia-fueled TV-channel flipping in the small hours of the morning: a forgotten space opera featuring sparkly costumes and melodramatic dialogue.

[PHOTOS: Ben Affleck, George Clooney and more at the NYC premiere of Argo]

But when CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) options this script, what he has in mind is not a genre movie but a rescue operation. Argo, Affleck's third outing as a director, heads far away from the Boston crime stories of Gone Baby Gone and The Town — to Tehran in 1980, where six American diplomats who escaped from the taking of the American embassy have been hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador in an increasingly perilous situation.

There are no good ways of getting them out of a country roiling with rage against the U.S. decision to grant asylum to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the recently overthrown Shah of Iran. The State Department suggests giving the six bicycles and pointing them toward the Turkish border, or passing them off as NGO workers in the country to inspect crops that aren't growing because it's winter. The plan Tony comes up with, to pass them off as a Canadian film crew, is as his boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) puts it "the best bad idea" the agency has.

Argo plays out like an unlikely heist movie in which all the suspense comes from unexpected corners. It's a con in which the ultimate tense sequence involves getting through airport security, in which we root for the American "house guests" to escape while never being allowed to forget that the mess they're in is a consequence of U.S. actions. It's more fine filmmaking from Affleck, though it feels less personal and soulful than his previous hometown genre exercises.  The movie's poignance comes primarily from the opportunity it provides for show business to save the day, and John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Hollywood vets John Chambers and Lester Siegel provide a wry, seen-it-all counterpoint to the aura of melancholy that colors the main storyline.

The primary weakness of Affleck's film is the actor himself, who can't seem to find much in "exfiltration" specialist Tony aside from a dedication to his work and sorrow over the potential breakup of his family.  He is separated from his wife, who has taken their son with her to Virginia. The '70s shaggy Tony is the protagonist of the story (and the real life Mendez provided some of the film's source material in his book The Master of Disguise), but the film places him as the too-still center, as if it would be in bad taste to give too much color to his character. "The whole country is watching you, they just don't know it," he's told early in the runtime, and that sense of his being a secret hero seems to extend into Argo as well.

It's left to the rest of the cast to fill in the liveliness, and Cranston and Chris Messina manage that well in the CIA, while Kerry Bishé, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall and Scoot McNairy do an able job fleshing out the six American stowaways. As Joe Stafford, the ambitious embassy worker who challenges Tony's plan as unsafe, McNairy is a stand-out, portraying a character in denial about how few options their group now has and filled with guilt about placing his wife in danger. But it's Goodman and Arkin who are uncomplicated great fun, and the scenes in which Tony travels around Burbank arranging a fake production with their characters are the movie's most enjoyable outside of the taut finale. Beneath a crumbled Hollywood sign, Tony dips his toe into the film world, quaffing wine at a press event for his nonexistence movie as costumed actors do a table read.

That scene, which cuts between the lavish event and the situation in Iran, would suggest a critique of the entertainment industry and the escapism it represents. But a later sequence finds one of the characters giving the pitch of his life to members of the Revolutionary Guard, and inadvertently affirming the power that the movies hold over everyone. On a studio lot thousands of miles away from Iran, Chambers and Siegel may  be joking about Groucho Marx while the world is in turmoil, but the power of show business holds sway even amidst Iran's militants, whose own actions demonstrate an awareness of the importance of theatricality. Argo is a subdued thriller about a small triumph in a troubled moment in time, but it's not without its sting. The side storyline of a local girl who was employed at the embassy provides a biting reminder of what it really means to be an unacknowledged hero. Not every gets to celebrate and drink champagne at the end.

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