At its best when it defies ‘Body of Lies’ formula

Based on a recently declassified CIA case file, Argo is hard to dissmiss as a vanity project for actor/director Ben Affleck since it’s neither a plumb role nor an opportunity to show off in the director’s chair. The film is very much its script: the narrative powers alone leave little room for directorial showboating, its engine drowning out any individual performance or element. Everything from design to camera serves to underpin the script; nothing is superfluous nor distracting. Kudos is at least due to Affleck that he resisted any temptation to showboat, instead presenting us with this: a lean, stripped-down, no-frills political thriller.

Affleck plays the protagonist who is unremarkable in appearance: his floppy hair, beardy face and bedraggled suits serve only to further his resemblance to a 1970s geography teacher − or as his character’s job description indicates − an extraction expert. Tony Mendez was, at the time, the CIA’s premier operative for getting in and then getting people out. And that’s precisely the task he’s faced with when in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution of 1979, militants stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, demanding the return of their shah so that he may be tried on Iranian soil. They took the embassy’s staff hostage in the process, but six of those employees managed to escape, finding refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. With just one absurd idea to supply the six with bicycles and road maps rattling around the Pentagon, Affleck’s Mendez leaves the Pentagon for Iran to mastermind a plot to masquerade himself and the six as Canadian nationals working on a Hollywood movie doing a two-day scout for exotic locations suited to their script’s sci-fi setting. Enlisting the help of special FX expert John Chambers (a pitch-perfect performance by John Goodman), Mendez sets about building his cover story, setting up a company and beginning pre-production on his fake movie, ‘Argo’.

The film is at times delightfully funny, with all the best lines wisely going to Goodman − Mendez: “Can someone learn to be a director in just two days?” Chambers: “You could train a rhesus monkey to direct in 24 hours”. Goodman’s natural charm again serves to de-emphaise any focus Affleck might have put on Mendez, and one has to question whether the lack of charisma Affleck affords his character is simply due to Affleck’s own shortcomings. While his film, no doubt consciously, has echoes of Alan Pakula’s political 1976 masterpiece All The President’s Men, Affleck himself suffers from the comparisons, being not as engaging as Redford or as electric as Hoffman. Just as well then, that he directs his film with great energy and assurance, as a firm and confident hand guided by the schools of Michael Mann or Martin Scorcese.

Ultimately though, while everything is admirably geared toward the service of the script, the film is brought down by its script’s readiness to succumb to Hollywood clichés. What initially promises to be a rich and complex political thriller gets boiled down to its bare essentials, leaving us with one too many pulse-quickening ‘shall I cut blue wire or the red wire’ type scenarios. It becomes obvious that while Affleck has gone to some lengths to deliver a restrained and tasteful film, the script itself is determined to show off, with the climax taking every opportunity to ratchet up the drama quite shamelessly. All of which might make for highly entertaining cinema, but falls short in convincing us of the narrative’s authenticity. Ironically for a film about disguise, this film masquerades as one belonging to the dangerous fringes of political filmmaking, whilst revealing itself to be quite mainstream and, like Affleck himself, a little more ordinary that it really should be.

Operation Argo (15)

Dir: Ben Affleck; US thriller, 2012, 120 mins; Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, Clea Duvall, Tate Donovan, Victor Garber
Premiered November 7
Playing Nationwide

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