The best thing about Argo is that director Ben Affleck and writer Chris Terrio deliver a true story so outrageous that it seems like something that could only happen in a movie.

The worst thing about Argo is that is takes that already too-amazing-to-be-true story and adds a bunch of unremarkable, even familiar action-movie contrivances, which makes something we’ve never seen before feel increasingly familiar in spite of itself.

Okay, Argo fans — I know you’re enthusiastic, and prone to punishing those who say anything critical about your Movie of the Month. Please drop your pitchforks and put out your torches. I come to praise Ben Affleck, not to bury him.

Affleck persuades me even further with this, his third directorial effort, that he’s a director whose work will reward my painful surrender of $15 for a ticket. He looks to me like one of the more promising and disciplined American directors making movies today. He’s three for three: Gone Baby Gone was riveting and packed with strong performances, and The Town was lean and mean and satisfying in spite of its irresponsible conclusion. Argo is my favorite of his films, primarily for the story that it tells, but also for its masterful recreation of 1970s Hollywood and Iran (an achievement for which the movie congratulates itself in an end-credits montage). And he deserves applause for giving Alan Arkin more respect than he’s been given in a dozen hammy supporting roles over the last decade.

I remember the Iran hostage crisis. I wasn’t even ten years old, but the news about angry Iranians storming the U.S. embassy and taking prisoners made an impression. I remember how the news coverage became one of my earliest experiences of television-inspired anxiety. When it was over, and the hostages were released, I remember getting the impression from adults in my community that this was God’s way of announcing that he was well-pleased with his beloved president Ronald Reagan. Me, I was just glad that tension was resolved.

But I have only the vaguest recollection that the United States thanked Canada for sneaking some other Americans out of the danger zone. And I have no memory at all of the Clinton administration de-classifying a story of what really happened.

Wow. What a story. This should have been splashed all over the papers. Maybe it was and I’ve forgotten. Whatever the case, the story that Argo brings to the screen is as difficult to believe as any film “based on true events” I’ve ever seen. But it is true… to a point.

You probably know the summary. When America learned that the Canadian embassy in Tehran was hiding six American State Department employees who escaped the siege of our  own embassy in 1979, they cooked up a cockamamie plan. Send in CIA Officer Tony Mendez, who will pose as a producer and train the trapped Americans to pose as a Canadian film crew working in Iran to make a cheap Star Wars rip-off. That means teaching these traumatized people to “speak Canadian” and transform themselves into filmmakers overnight, absorbing their new identities thoroughly so that they might hope to endure interrogation without cracking. Their lives depend on it. And the United States is risking international humiliation if it fails.

The movie becomes predictably uncertain about the real core of its narrative. Should we focus on the stress that Mendez experiences as he steps out onto this high wire? Should we get to know the trapped Americans, their relationships, their reasons for trusting or distrusting Mendez? Should we focus on the political climate and the flammable nature of life in Iran? Should we let the Hollywood characters — played with much-needed humor by John Goodman and Alan Arkin — steal the show?

The movie’s numerous character actors are simultaneously a delight and a distraction.

Bryan Cranston, solid as always, has been in far too many movies recently. Sure, he’s great in Breaking Bad, but his overexposure is badly breaking my suspension of disbelief. (Really, back when we were watching TV’s Malcolm in the Middle, who would ever have expected such a tidal wave of big screen roles lay ahead of Cranston? He was great back then, but Jane Kaczmarek showed just as much promise as he did, and where are her movies?)*

Philip Baker Hall shows up, predictably, as one of several government officials whose disapproval could shut down the whole operation. (A line linking Hall to the Muppets gets the film’s biggest laugh.)

Ah, and here’s the always agreeable Victor Garber in another show about aliases. (We might note, has an almost familial connection to Affleck considering how he used to manage Affleck’s real-world wife, Jennifer “Sidney Bristow” Garner.)

The film’s stage-setting prologue works so hard, and so impressively, to immerse us in Iran at the height of the crisis that it sets itself up to disappoint: Argo does little or nothing to provoke us to consider the complicated ethical questions at the heart of these events. Was the U.S. wise to give protection to the Shah? Did the rioting Iranians have good reason to be upset? Will we get to know even one Iranian character the way we get to know the six suffering Americans or the Hollywood artists that conspire to help them? The answer is, sadly and predictably, no. Angry Iranians will look, to most Americans, like dangerous foreigners rather than human beings with whom we might empathize. Movies like this define “Love Your Neighbor” only far enough to include neighbors that speak our language and have homes within our borders.

Worse, the closer the film gets to its big finale, the more we can hear the hum of typical suspense-thriller machinery. The simultaneity of contrived calamity and rescue complications jacks up the implausibility factor… and that’s a shame, because the most enjoyable thing about this film is it’s factual implausibility. Do we really need Indiana Jones-style high-speed chases involving trucks full of rifle-wielding bad guys?

Does it work? Sure. I was exhausted at the end of this movie, as if I’d watched the whole Bourne trilogy without a break.

But does it give us any greater insight into ethical questions about covert operations, diplomacy, America’s complicated relationship with Iran? I don’t think so.

All in all, it’s Affleck who comes out of this endeavor looking good. His obviously self-effacing performance is almost showy in its humility. And his directorial style is turning up the volume on those who compare his directorial style to Sydney Pollack.

The endangered Americans are played with persuasive sweat and stress by Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Chriopher Denham, and Kerry Bishe.

And it’s amusing to visit the bedroom of Tony Mendez’s young son, where we’re treated to a museum exhibit of Affleck’s own childhood (and mine). (It’s full of Star Wars posters and sci-fi action figures, almost all of which still stand around my home office.)

Archival photography and a special guest appearance during the end-credits deliver entirely unnecessary brags about just how true the filmmakers have been, but they also bring us back out of the action-movie conventions to the sobering realization that while these fortunate few escaped a nightmare, history is repeating itself, with higher stakes, and an increasing possibility of devastating results.

Many are predicting an array of Oscars for Argo. It’s a more deserving film than a lot of recent Best-Picture winners. Count me among its admirers. But don’t number among the enthusiasts. Like most big American entertainment, it does more for adrenalin than intellect, more for the heart-rate than the heart. So buckle up and enjoy the great escape.

*My comments on Bryan Cranston have disrupted a hornets’ next of Cranston fans who seem to think that I have slandered their god. When I replied, asserting that I admire the actor, and that overexposure isn’t good for anybody (even good actors), there was no calming them. They not only claimed to know better than me what I have or haven’t seen on TV; they made sweeping condemnations of my work because of that one paragraph. I’m not sure what they think they’re gaining from this, beyond permanent banning from my blog. (I’ve set up a filter so their comments are vaporized before I even see them.) But be warned: While Cranston is a fine actor, some of his fans have apparently become infected by something like the “rage virus” that turned human beings into hysterical zombies in 28 Days Later.

Director – Ben Affleck; writer – Chris Terrio; based on the book The Master of Disguise, by Antonio J. Mendez and the Wired  article “The Great Escape,” by Joshuah Bearman; director of photography – Rodrigo Prieto; editor – William Goldenberg; music – Alexandre Desplat; production design – Sharon Seymour; costumes – Jacqueline West; producers – Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, and George Clooney. Starring – Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Victor Garber (Ken Taylor), Tate Donovan (Bob Anders), Clea DuVall (Cora Lijek), Scoot McNairy (Joe Stafford), Rory Cochrane (Lee Schatz), Christopher Denham (Mark Lijek) and Kerry Bishé (Kathy Stafford). Warner Brothers Pictures. 2 hours.



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