Oct 12, 2012

Ben Affleck moves closer to auteur status.

Grade: A-
Director: Ben Affleck (The Town)
Screenplay: Chris Terrio, from Anthony Mendez’s The Master of Disguise.
Cast: Ben Affleck (The Company Men), Bryan Cranston (Total Recall)
Rating: R
Runtime: 120 min
by John DeSando

“We had suicide missions in the Army that had better odds than this.” Lester (Alan Arkin)

Although the historical events depicted in Argo for extricating six embassy employees from Iran during the infamous 444 day hostage debacle may not have happened just as director Ben Affleck and writer Chris Terrio depict them, the movie is an edge-of-the-seat thriller done better than any other film of its kind this year. The above quotation by Lester, a Hollywood producer recruited for the gamble, captures the danger and promise of the escapade.

The reason for my A- rather than A is the ending escape sequence, which is pure Hollywood, preposterous and entertaining. If you’re not rooting for the personnel to get away, then you must be an old timer who worked for fundamentalist Islam’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

The strategy devised by Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) was called the “Hollywood Option,” and more to the point, the “best bad idea,” a bold masquerade in which Mendez and the six were disguised as Canadian filmmakers seeking a location for a low-budget sci-fi film.  The tension, expertly maintained by director Affleck, rests almost solely on whether or not their fiction is uncovered.  Affleck underplays Mendez in a posture necessary for remaining cool in the face of Iranian authorities seeking Americans to hang.

Besides evoking the late seventies’ dorky fashions of ubiquitous moustaches, long hair, and large glasses, Argo recreates the volatile environment of world affairs when relief from Vietnam did not mean relief from rogue governments like Iran’s, as the condemnation of Salman Rushdie has taught well. Every Iranian bureaucrat and soldier carries a hidden threat in beards and bearing. At the airport, the multiple check points ramp up the anxiety, enhanced no doubt by our experiences with post 9/11 TSA.

If you’re disappointed by that Hollywood ending, wait for the post-credits sequence, which juxtaposes photos of Tehran at the time with the film’s stills.  If that bit of realism doesn’t satisfy you, then enjoy the superior acting of John Goodman as make-up artist John Chambers and Arkin. Now that’s the real Hollywood.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at
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