Movie Review: ARGO

(l to r): Bryan Cranston, Ben Affleck in “Argo”

Release date: October 12, 2012
Directed by: Ben Affleck

Screenplay by: Chris Terrio
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber
Rating: R; Running Time: 120 minutes

Though well-intentioned, it seems that the rescue film Argo could use a little rescue itself. While the trailer offers a crackling, quick-cut mix of dramatic heroism and humor amid the terrifying political cauldron of 1979 Iran (underscored by the evocative rock music of the day), the trailer’s promised, pulse-racing suspense doesn’t enter until halfway through the movie’s third act.

Based on Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 magazine article “The Great Escape” (as well as a selection from Antonio J. Mendez’ 1999 memoir “The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA”), Chris Terrio’s screenplay is a surprisingly flat affair. Characters are unexplored and tonal shifts are abrupt, with a focus so scattershot as to dissipate what should have been, as per Bearman, “a seismic event on the world stage.”

The film opens with historical footage, outlining the previous American support of the deposed Shah of Iran who, in October 1979, was given asylum by the U.S. Rallied by the return of Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini, the country escalated into an all-out, anti-American revolution. And on November 4, 1979, Islamist factions overran the U.S. Embassy, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. But six Americans escaped during the chaos, finding refuge in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). While the covert escape was initially credited to the actions of the Canadians, in 1997 President Clinton officially declassified the true story. Cue Argo, recounting the true tale of how CIA “exfiltration” agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) conjured up a plan to pass off the six Americans as a Canadian filmmaking team, scouting out locations for the titular sci-fi movie. Once the ersatz film crew scouted a location or two, they’d be on their way back to Canada … and Iran would be none the wiser. This being a daring plan rife with danger and unexpected obstacles, Argo should have been far more of a nail-biter than it is.

The problems are multi-fold. First, director Affleck doesn’t do actor Affleck any favors. Other than voicing derision to his CIA superiors about their inane rescue plans, his Tony expresses very little spirit. Ponderous and morose, keeping his face immobile to the point of mummification, we wonder what director Affleck’s goal might have been. If it was to relegate the hero to the background while other characters sizzled into the spotlight, so be it. But no one does.

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