Argo’s heat will keep you in your seat

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CIA Operatives Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) wait for the “okay” on their plan to send in a faux-Canadian film crew to Iran and rescue six Americans in the midst of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Oscar nominated Ben Affleck expertly directed and starred in the film based on the extraordinary de-classified true story, Argo.

Ben Lerner, Staff Writer

Argo marks Ben Affleck’s third directorial excursion to date, and it seems that his skills as a director have only increased.  In fact, Affleck’s off-camera work might even outshine his performance in the movie.

The film recreates and dramatizes “Project Argo,” the now-declassified mission to extradite fugitive American foreign service employees from Iran during the infamous Iranian Hostage Crisis.  CIA spy Sam Mendez (Ben Affleck) formulates an outlandish ploy to disguise the trapped ambassadors as a Canadian film crew for a fake movie called Argo and provide them with safe passage out of the country. His tough-yet-understanding boss, Jack (Bryan Cranston) pushes the plan through to top brass, and he gets the go-ahead to carry out “the best worst idea we’ve got.”

Mendez enlists the help of affable Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Hollywood schmoozer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to secure funding and permission to film the “movie” in Iran. Mendez heads off to the heart of the conflict to quickly train the stranded embassy workers to act, speak, and think like their Canadian identities in order to leave before they’re caught.

The rest of the plot moves along at a reasonable pace, but the most entertaining parts of the film are in the buildup.  Watching Siegel drag Mendez around Hollywood, lie to people left and right, and bully a producer into giving him money is extremely satisfying to watch.  You almost wish that the sci-fi schlock has actually been made so that you can enjoy Siegel yelling at the people parading around in Chambers’ costumes, and occasionally sprinkling his verbal abuse with the film’s not-safe-for-Schreiber catchphrase.  Unfortunately, most of the film focuses on Mendez’s brooding contemplation on how unlikely the success of his mission is.  Affleck’s role is carefully performed – you can spot hints of doubt shivering through Affleck’s stoic composure.  Still, Affleck’s character is a bit too calm for someone in his position, and he came across restrained, impatient, and even detached.

It is worth noting that the style of the film is incredibly fitting.  Not only does Argo take place during the late 1970s, but also it emulates the narrative-focused films that were produced during that era. It has an old-school purpose behind it, and a subtle message that it tries to put across, masked by comical Hollywood montages and tense waiting games between the embassy workers and the rebel forces.  It is not blatantly political, though.  The introduction may have been rather critical of America’s foreign policy, but there are no significant Iranian characters throughout the entire movie.  The high-stakes climax was certainly riveting, but the wild-eyed, bayonet-wielding Iranians driving police cars alongside a taxiing plane felt a bit melodramatic, drawing away from the idea that they had legitimate excuses for revenge.

A drawback to this kind of classical moviemaking is the lack of attention that’s paid to the characters.  The realism comes from things like attention to detail and use of newsreel footage that’s relevant to what’s going on.  However, Argo is just a two hour movie, and there is not enough time to develop any of the escapees beyond plot-related character traits.  Scenes between the Americans and Iranians lacked a depth beyond “us vs. the bad guys. “ Yet Argo (much like the fake film Argo) is all about schlock and the magic of kitsch.  It offers good old-fashioned entertainment: not simply a hundred minute mindless popcorn.