Ben Affleck's Argo is a comedy about the nadir of the American '70s: the Iranian hostage crisis and the apparent impotence of our nation. Intelligence failures were rife at that time. Saturday Night Live, back when it really was SNL, once gave us Bill Murray as a breezy spook: "Are you kidding? They're nuts about the shah."
Director/star Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio do their best to balance the story with an opening sequence about U.S. culpability in installing a weakling absolutist, the type of tyrant who had his meals flown in from Paris via supersonic jet. And they even give the last word to Jimmy Carter.
Derived from a true-life story of rescue, the film's Mission Impossible–style heroics should prove particularly appealing right now. And after the Libyan embassy debacle, the film couldn't be more timely. Yet while Affleck goes full '70s, from the cheesy Warner Bros. logo of the era to the acrylic sweaters and tarantula mustaches, his nerve failed somewhere. He decided to pump up the tale.
Wigged, bearded and open-collared, pretending to be Al Pacino in Serpico, Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA officer of tensed nerves and troubled stability. I prefer Affleck as a bastard, and my favorite moment is when he gets the germ of his idea as he's tuning out what his young son is saying to him over the phone. We see both the government schemer and the failing father in one view. Mendez drinks too much, and that's his beef against the Iranians—they're a bunch Lemonade Lucys who are always forbidding alcohol, a point stressed throughout Argo.
No future historian will believe that this was likely the West's main beef against insurgent Islam, but it's probably true. It wasn't the oil or the sexual politics. It's just that many Americans don't trust people who don't drink.
The plot is simple. Mendez is sent to organize the scouting of locations for a fake science-fiction movie. Six Americans who escaped the revolutionary round-up are currently hiding in the Canadian embassy in Tehran. They will be removed, disguised as crew members and writers. This tactic raises only minor suspicion by bemused Iranian cultural attach–s: "You come to us at a complicated time."
Argo sees the famous "Canadian Caper" as comedy; it's like Jerry Lewis' lament that everyone has two businesses, their own and show. While some documentary-like scenes of an embassy in flight ground the movie, it's a fantasy about how a magic charm of lies is able to brave the walls of the worst reign of terror situations. Who was the Scarlet Pimpernel, if not a showman?
In that jaded world of the moviemaker, on the far side of the then-ruined Hollywood sign, we're at home and amused. John Goodman, hearty and portly, wobbles through a movie set as Booker T.'s slouchy "Hip Hug-Her" plays.
Alan Arkin, the man of living jade, counters the compliment to his "stamina" and takes a meeting with a fellow fraud (Richard Kind). "Do you want to hear the truth?" he's asked. "No," Arkin answers with supreme weariness, "I want you to bullshit me, Max."
This Tropic Thunder mode is the richest part of Argo, but that's when the film becomes more workaday, delivering the torn-from-the-streets-of-Tehran views, the outraged merchant screaming about having his picture taken, the swarthy but outwittable armed savages at the airport.
The filmmakers have the right to boast of the accuracy of Argo's look in a series of photos over the end credits. They've found doubles for everyone from the droning female revolutionary, hunched over reading her endless litany of charges against the great U.S. Satan, to the dead man dangling from the crane after a public execution. At times, the haute-'70s hair and clothing styles seem too extreme, and then you see the actual passport photos of the six hostages.
Onto this true story, Affleck has laminated Bond-knockoff events that we know didn't happen just from the way they look and play onscreen. Nobody expected Casino Royale (2006) to be based on the headlines, but the airport sequences there, reproduced badly here, stick out like some low-grade producer's idea of a thrilling finale. And even the acrid Arkin ends up giving man-hugs.
120 min. R