As Ben Affleck has faded as one of the major American movie stars, he has quietly risen as one of the country’s most reliable genre directors. With Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and now Argo — all well-made, smaller-scale, exciting films — Affleck the director has shown a surprising talent for turning pulpy stories into propulsive movies. Up until Argo, his main preoccupation as a filmmaker has been to mix the high-brow with the low — by slowing down the pace of what many directors would have turned into run-of-the-mill action movies, by giving them more sensuous photography and longer emotive speeches than most action directors would, he turned simple crime movies into serious-seeming stuff. Now that he’s got a political thriller on his hands, and the high-brow angle is taken care of just based on the premise, Affleck’s style — an easy blend of saturated colors, period detail, and rapid editing — seems adequate but curiously superfluous. That’s also a good way to describe Argo as a whole.
The movie, set in 1980 during the Iran hostage crisis, is about an elaborate ruse to fool the Iranians put on by real-life CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck), a specialist in “exfiltration” (rescuing Americans who’ve gotten themselves caught in dangerous situations around the world.) His task is to pull six office workers from the overrun American embassy out of Iran before its anti-American rioters find and hang them. His plan is to dress the employees up as a Hollywood film crew and parade them out of the Islamic state in plain sight, using real wigs, fake beards, faker passports, and a lot of balls.
As a director, Affleck lays things out smoothly and stylishly. He knows how to pace individual scenes and how to build them together for maximum tension. For the first third of the movie, as he pulls together threads of late 70s Middle East-Western conflict, sets up the players in the international intrigue game that the CIA was actually playing with the Iranians, and puts characters’ lives convincingly on the line, it almost seems like Argo is going to be Affleck’s first movie to infuse non-tawdry material with his classy style.
But this serious political thriller does have a built-in tawdry element. In the second third of the movie we learn that Mendez’s plan depends on the help of a couple of Hollywood players who moonlight as CIA contacts: a world-renowned makeup artist (John Goodman) and a second-rate producer (Alan Arkin). These are the characters who make the ruse against the Iranians seem plausible, by constructing a fake movie — titled Argo — which the embassy workers are to be ostensibly making in Iran. The makeup artist and the producer give this thriller a level of liveliness and color that make it stand out from other serious-minded political thrillers (say, Syriana or Green Zone).
Argo is, admirably, a political thriller without a single gun or fist fight. Still, without the Hollywood aspect to liven it up, it’d basically be the story of six office workers hiding under the floorboards. So by the final third, when Affleck shuttles the Hollywood players aside to focus entirely on the rescue, things get perfunctory. Particularly, they get run through a series of tired editing techniques, the main of which is the “ticking time-bomb,” an age-old cinematic device wherein the audience is made aware of exactly how long it will be until something terrible happens. Affleck caps off Argo with a pretty stunning three-peat of these countdowns: a tense face-off with airport security, a race against an Iranian thug who’s tracking Mendez and the ‘film crew’ after they’re detained at their boarding gate, and a race between Iranian police and a Swiss Air jumbo jet to the dead-end of a runaway. You don’t get a chance to think about much else but pounding music and strained faces for about twenty minutes.
Without techniques like these, though, Affleck is helpless. He’s got an important movie on his hands: Argo is not only about a pivotal world event of the 20th century, it also strongly recalls the recent embassy attack in Libya and the current nuclear standoff with Iran. All this relevance makes it disappointing that Affleck’s got little up his sleeve but ramped-up editing and last-minute saves. The relationship between Washington, DC and Hollywood raises a lot of questions: How much of what we know about what goes on in other countries is concocted for someone’s benefit? How do we know how much of it is real? Is there a difference between films like Argo about these situations and the way we see them through the media? How much influence does the government have in the movie industry? Argo is ripe for deeper questions, but Affleck is a workmanlike director far more interested in things like period detail, saturated color, and creating suspense.
As the star, meanwhile, Affleck spends the entire movie with his brow furrowed in worry and his black eyes glassed over from a few too many drinks. Mendez is touted as the best “exfil” agent the CIA has, an expert at a job that requires impersonating people. It stands to reason that he should, at the very least, be capable of acting insouciant. But Affleck plays him as mercilessly grave and dour, as if the actor were terrified the audience might think of Mendez as anything less than deeply conflicted, tortured by inner demons. The role highlights something I’ve long thought about Ben Affleck’s performances: he doesn’t deliver them precisely. He plays his characters broadly because he isn’t skilled enough as an actor to convey complex emotions. He fails to suggest anything deeper than work-related stress to account for Mendez’s complexity.
Still, Argo is a good film thanks to its remarkably adept direction. Affleck is skilled in the craft of filmmaking like a gifted film student who hasn’t yet tried to look under the surface of his subjects. In essence, he’s more interested in the different tones and atmospheres he can pull off than in saying anything particularly meaningful. Argo is a serious movie about a serious subject with a passing resemblance to current relevance, but it’s as much about its great 70s costume design and its successful recreation of a teeming post-Shah Tehran as it is about the troubling issues it touches on.