These three are the heart of the movie.

Argo is the least of Affleck’s films and in his case, that still counts as praise. This film again evinces what I think are his two core strengths as a director: getting remarkable performances even from actors known for them and a seemingly effortless sense of when to go big and when to stay restrained. Argo is as deft as The Town and Gone Baby Gone and, in its own way, is similar on the level of being a riff on a type of film we are familiar with. Affleck seems like he’s paying his dues, and paying them masterfully. He makes these films that refuse to be flashy, that are quietly remarkable as they tackle genre and plot contrivance we should be sick of by now. And he does it while throwing his name and his movies up there with landmark examples of whatever style he’s going for.

Here, it’s the talking heads political thriller. Argo is a bit messy in that regard for reasons I’ll get into. It remains confident and capable, but falls a bit short of being a surprise like his last two films. Maybe this is because no one expected Gone Baby Gone to be a masterpiece, or that The Town wasn’t Affleck repeating himself. Now we know he’s the goods, so maybe that’s the only reason why Argo should fail to make as much of an impression on me. But then again, there are the messy bits. I’ll try and suss out how much they matter.

There’s a sense that the Six should have been more compelling and vivid characters for more of the movie.

Argo is about a declassified CIA operation in Iran which was designed to get some diplomatic staff out of country. Things got bad over there in the late 70’s and by 1980, a pile of American embassy personnel were being held hostage. The only ones who escaped were the six who managed to get to the Canadian ambassador’s house where they spent months in hiding. Like any movie “based on a true story”, Argo massages many details and adds in drama and character arcs wherever they’ll fit. I’ll try to stay broad about that because a review should not be concerned with cataloging where a work of fiction, even based on truth, departs from reality. But it might be worth mentioning as a Canadian viewer that Canada was way more involved with the rescue than depicted in the film. At the end, it’s sort of passed off as a joke where Canada wants the credit. Sort of a backhand and an odd one, I felt.

The film is split unevenly between the situation in Iran and the efforts of Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, pulling double duty again), a CIA exfil specialist who helped get other people out of Iran during the Islamic revolution. Mendez listens as his colleagues concoct one bad idea after another. Eventually, he hits on tapping John Chambers (John Goodman, having a blast), a Hollywood makeup and prosthetics guy who has worked for the CIA before. Chambers helps get Mendez set up with a fake Star Wars rip-off called Argo which needs exotic shooting locales. They tap producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and go to work making it seem as legit as possible. The unlikely plan is the best one the CIA has and with the backing of his boss (Bryan Cranston), Mendez gets the go-ahead to go prep the six.

Argo is often having a lot of fun even within the greater context of the hostage crisis.

With Chambers, Siegel, and Mendez in cahoots the movie gets a sense of fun and propulsion that drives the bleak underbelly of the central conflict in Iran. We seem to spend a lot more time with these guys as they develop their partnership and their crazy plan. Meanwhile, the six themselves aren’t presented as much more than some 70’s clothes and hair with Scoot McNairy, Rory Culkin, and Clea DuVall semi-recognizably in there. It isn’t until relatively late in the film that they get more to do. When Mendez gets to Iran, the movie shifts gears back into thriller mode.

These tonal shifts hinder it a bit. A lot of the time it feels like Affleck wasn’t quite sure what tone to shoot for. Is this a pseudo-comedy or a high-stakes political thriller? In spite of all the technical confidence on every other level of the production, tone is something that feels a bit less assured. Personally, I would rather have watched the dramedy about this bizarre rescue operation succeeding against all credulity, and let the fun involved be fun (in reality, the operation went smoothly) rather than manufacturing risk and drama. The bit where they get on the plane and the Revolutionary Guard discover who they are JUST IN TIME to chase the plane feels totally cinematic and rings halfway false. I didn’t mind watching it, and I can’t retroactively mind just because I found out that none of that happened (it went off without a hitch) but the need to have this drama of “will they escape after all!?” is on the wrong side of that “good cinema” line between reality and movie entertainment.

C’mon Iran, it’s SPACESHIPS.

The right side of it, on the other hand, comes just before the great plane chase of 2012. Detained prior to boarding, Mendez and the six are interrogated by some mean looking beards with AKs and suspicious attitudes. This is the moment where Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) totally rises to the occasion after spending the prep phase reluctant and stubborn. This is a bit of heroism that feels entirely cinematic and is apparently just as invented as the subsequent bits. However, this feels totally right as Stafford finding his balls and using them to save the day is fun. Not to mention that the whole Argo project (the fake movie within the movie, to be clear) feels like a running joke.

So I guess what I’m saying is that Argo (the actual movie) mixes it up and doesn’t always find the right balance. You can tell it’s wrong when the six bore you except when fun is allowed, when you’d rather watch 3 movies of the Mendez-Chambers-Siegel partnership than even one more focused on the daily life of the six (which we see little of).

The movie is politics. Now we talk them!

As for Argo‘s politics, well, it’s actually a reflection of the “where is this movie?” sense of tone (sometimes). In some introductory text, accompanied by comic-book story boards that feel completely fun and thus discordant with the subject matter, the movie is not shy about telling us how Iran got so messy in the first place. It’s simple: there’s oil and an Iranian leader tried to nationalize it so the Americans and Brits ousted him and installed a dictator who let the country go to shit but kept the oil going. Then the Islamists revolt, wanting mostly just better lives, and turn the country into a bleak and dangerous state of gray and brown filters. So there’s this extent to which the movie may be flirting with criticism of America’s policies and priorities in the Middle East.

But no, not really. The rest of the movie brushes this stuff aside and focuses on how the CIA are good guys. The movie doesn’t go out of its way to villify the Iranians, though. Instead, Affleck keeps the focus mostly away from Iran until it has to be on Iran. It’s the same way he handles the role of the Canadians. When necessary, there are maple leafs and the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) but mostly the overwhelming sense that America. Still, one can’t help but note the timing of the movie. Iran is mentioned every other day in American news and seems like a likely target for another military misadventure. That a movie about the hostage crisis gets funded now would be suspect if the movie hadn’t wound up having relatively little to say about Iran.

So while the political tone is weird, it doesn’t really wreck the movie or anything. Maybe I’m just uninformed or expected something more critical, either inward or outward, than what I got. See, and this is why the movie feels like it would often have been better off as something overall lighter than it wound up being. I know that’s a weird thing to say as I’m sure there was nothing light or funny about the situation the hostages all faced. But Argo divides itself between that business and the oddball plan to resolve it. The oddball plan and the tone of its portrayal just works better and is more engaging than the thriller elements.

Affleck kinda looks like my dad in this movie. If my dad wore suits.

To wrap this up, I’ll focus on what works across the board for this movie. Most of the character work is subtle. Especially the six. In the more central performances, we get some nice sharp work from Affleck and Arkin. Affleck’s character gets pathos from his bad situation at home. The movie doesn’t dwell on it, but we’re given everything we need to understand that this is a man who loves his family but whose work-life has torn him from them, and that it might be too far gone. He gets his inspiration from that situation, with Argo (fake movie) being the tale of a husband and wife team battling evil, and with his son being a big movie enthusiast. A lesser movie would have had endless scenes telling the audience about all of this, while Affleck is happy to use his now-trademark restraint.

Arkin gets his due in one single moment. When they pitch him on the idea, he’s sort of against it but in a surly way we soon learn is just Siegel’s style. Then he looks at the screen, at the howling Iranian protestors burning effigies and being all scary. His lip quivers. Then he joins up. This little bit might seem like nothing, but it actually speaks volumes. Siegel is almost certainly a Jewish character (I believe this is actually mentioned. He’s also the right age to have lived through the Holocaust years and even if he wasn’t in Europe, this would have affected him. The images he sees surrounding the hostages would remind him of things he’d probably rather forget.

This is not a coincidence, that I read these things into the movie. I think this is part of what makes Affleck such a satisfying filmmaker for adult, sophisticated audiences. There’s always the swagger of Arkin’s performance to enjoy, but within it are these little nuggets of restrained characterization that work like gangbusters. Affleck’s three movies are full of this stuff. I may have focused particularly on Arkin and Affleck himself, but I’m sure other viewers would pull small moments from any other cast member in this movie.

So in all, Argo is a successful film in spite of its self-induced tonal trouble. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most people won’t struggle with the tone as I did and will simply roll with it as a movie that is simultaneously more fun and more harrowing than they may have expected.

The bazaar is a tense moment. No laughs or “Fuckyeah CIA!” to be had there.

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