Despite the jarring locational shift from the streets of present-day Boston to those of 1980 Tehran, Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is very similar to his previous effort, “The Town.” As he did in that robbery thriller, Affleck here takes a straightforward heist plot and transforms it into a respectable piece of entertainment by distinctly evoking the setting, ratcheting up the tension during the climax, and getting authentic performances out of the cast. But such meat-and-potatoes successes are less impressive within the context of “Argo”’s richer premise. That Affleck doesn’t derive a single geopolitically relevant observation from this true story that offers numerous parallels to the current situation in the Middle East represents a significant missed opportunity. The actor-turned-director proves that he couldn’t be more a craftsman and less a visionary.
Though the ultimate blame for the film’s lack of relevance rests with Affleck, who fails to draw smart comparisons between 1980 and today through images and framing devices, it’s fair to point out that Chris Terrio’s superficial screenplay doesn’t do the director any favors in this respect. Terrio focuses so heavily on the stranger-than-fiction details of the historical events he chronicles, in which six Americans who narrowly escaped the Iranian Hostage Crisis were smuggled out of the country posing as location scouts for a Hollywood sci-fi film, that he fails to present any big picture ideas. This would be more forgivable if said details weren’t often fabricated to make the movie sexier for American ticket-buyers; Terrio suggests that the mission was primarily the work of a single C.I.A. agent (played by Affleck), when in reality it was conducted by Canadian intelligence with American support. This fudging of the facts suggests that the filmmakers were more interested in using the illusion of historical accuracy to bolster the movie’s dramatic effect than they were in the realities of the story.
However, viewers looking for a simple thriller with a surprising sense of humor will be satisfied by “Argo.” Affleck knows how to entertain from the beginning, approaching the first half in a style that could be characterized as farcical if not for the sobering opening scenes set in the American embassy in Tehran. As protagonist Agent Tony Mendez cooks up the wacky plot to smuggle his six fellow countrymen out of Iran–a premise that is factual, despite writer Terrio’s procedural embellishments–it comically comes across as a heist too insane for a movie, much less real-life. But even when engaging the audience’s bewilderment that the essence of “Argo” actually happened, Affleck doesn’t lose sight of what he’s building to. Come the second half, when Agent Mendez touches down in Tehran, the director seamlessly transitions into a serious white-knuckler. The danger of the operation is palpable and, even though the audience knows deep down that everything will turn out all right in the end (Hollywood wouldn’t have made the movie otherwise), watching it unfold is an extremely tense experience. Affleck, with the help of editor William Goldenberg and composer Alexandre Desplat, knows how to get the viewer’s heart pumping with all the right stylistic techniques, rendering “Argo” an adrenaline rush if not an intellectual success.
Thus, “Argo” makes for a decent Friday night megaplex outing, albeit little more. Unlike most heist movies, it’s only explicitly dumb for a few minutes, when lionizing President Carter’s handling of the Hostage Crisis. Still, one can’t help but wish Affleck had just made another tale about working-class Boston instead, handing this juicy story over to a director more capable of evoking sociopolitical meaning. Then again, in Hollywood, that likely would have meant an avowed leftist like Robert Redford or Rod Lurie, both of whom would have made far more absurd suggestions than that Carter was a wise leader. With that in mind, “Argo” the popcorn thriller doesn’t seem so bad after all.