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Inspiring Argo Could Have Used More Intrigue

  • Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2012 10 Oct
  • COMMENTS
Inspiring <i>Argo</i> Could Have Used More Intrigue

DVD Release Date: February 19, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: October 12, 2012
Rating: R for language and some violent images 
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 120 min.
Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Tate Donavan

A drama about a successful rescue mission during the Iranian hostage crisis should be a slam dunk. This is an inspiring, exciting tale of American intelligence working with another country to pull off a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction success. Such a film would be a rousing, patriotic thrill ride that simultaneously reminds us of the heroic work our clandestine service members perform daily, and the importance of working with allies in a common cause.

But it’s never easy to make a good movie. There are so many ways a good story can go bad by the time it hits the big screen. Taking that into account, Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck (The Town), is good enough. Given its improbable, thrilling source material, Argo doesn’t fumble the storytelling football. It’s rarely boring, but Argo is not the great film it might have been. It takes few risks, sticking to a story with an ending most viewers already will already know from press accounts. Given the foregone conclusion, Affleck’s attempts to create tension and excitement come across as forced. 

Tony Mendez (Affleck) is a CIA “exfiltration” specialist—the kind you call when you want a job done and don’t want to do it yourself—when the Iranian hostage crisis unfolds. Fifty-two Americans are taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, but six people slip away and hole up in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber, You Again). When the Canadian and American governments ask the CIA for help, it’s Mendez who comes up with, in the words of the men who approve the plan, “the best bad idea we have.” Mendez will tap his Hollywood connections and travel to Iran under the guise of a producer scouting locations for "Argo," a sci-fi thriller. His real goal? To find the people hiding out at Taylor’s house, have them assume identities as film crew members, and get them out of the country before the Iranian regime identifies and executes them.

We never get to know these six individuals beyond the barest sketch. Argo is less about the embassy personnel than it is about Mendez and a colorful group of supporting players that pull off the scheme. That group includes Bryan Cranston (Total Recall) as Mendez’s CIA boss Jack O’Donnell, an enjoyable but underused John Goodman (The Artist) as makeup artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin (Marley & Me) as producer Lester Siegel.

The focus on Mendez rather than the hostages keeps the plot from spreading too thin, but it’s also part of Argo’s problem. Mendez isn’t a complex character, so screenwriter Chris Terrio, adapting an article by Joshuah Bearman, plays up Mendez’s marital difficulties (he and his wife are “taking time off” from each other) and love for his son, who lives with his mom. Yet the reasons for Mendez’s marital problems aren’t made clear, nor are solid reasons given for a possible reunion between husband and wife. Why, exactly, was Mendez’s marriage made a part of Argo when it seems so clearly superfluous to the central story about the hostage rescue mission?

Some sense of—dare I say—ambiguity may have given the film a deeper resonance. The Iranians are almost all raging, ready-to-blow hotheads, while the Americans are mostly trying to navigate, or, in some cases, circumvent obstacles to the mission. For the film’s finale, Affleck cross-cuts between the hostages at the airport and the efforts of Iranian officials who have figured out the IDs of the missing hostages and are moving to detain them. It’s hard to flub such material, but the treatment of the Iranian villains is so amped up in these scenes that it pushes the film into broad caricature and stereotype.

The Iranian hostage crisis was resolved as one president’s term ended and his successor prepared to take the oath of office. Argo arrives just as America prepares to go to the ballot box in another presidential election, but it has little to say about our government’s relationship with the Middle East, or about the use/misuse of intelligence. It is, instead, a straightforward retelling of a heroic rescue mission, pulled off against all odds. It’s a story that deserves to be widely seen, but that doesn’t make Argo unimpeachable.

Even though it’s far from perfect, Argo counts as another feather in Affleck’s directing cap, not quite up to the level of his earlier directing work on The Town or Gone Baby Gone, but sure to find a receptive, appreciative audience. Unabashedly patriotic portrayals of government servants are rare, and Argo is an intelligent film about intelligence agents, minus the sanctimony and political score-settling of other recent films dealing with a similar subject, like Fair Game. That makes Argo, in the middle of an endless political season, refreshingly unpolitical. And that may be the biggest surprise the film has to offer.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity: “Go--ammit”; several uses of the “f”-word; crude reference to male sex organ; numerous uses of foul language; a man extends a middle finger
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Several scenes of smoking and drinking
  • Sex/Nudity: Scantily clad actresses; it’s said that before the Iranian revolution, 40% of its theaters showed pornography
  • Violence/Crime: An analogy to a CIA operation being “like abortions—you don’t want to need one, but when you do, you don’t do it yourself”; a corpse hangs from a crane; a man is shot; an embassy is overrun; riots; a mock firing-squad execution
  • Marriage: Mendez says he and his wife are taking time off from their marriage
  • Religion: Violent religious protests; an Iranian man tells a woman, “Those who sit silently have sinned”

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.

Publication date: October 12, 2012