Monday, March 25, 2013

Short Take: Argo

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Argo, Ben Affleck’s third feature as a director, is an entertaining historical thriller. But it’s not especially ambitious or accomplished, and one may be fairly surprised that such a modest project won, among many other honors, the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2012. It’s based on the 1980 rescue operation of six U. S. embassy employees in Tehran who escaped capture during the Iranian hostage crisis. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the CIA officer who conceived, coordinated, and executed the mission. The operation’s cover story, the film's most outlandish aspect, is true to what actually occurred. With help from Planet of the Apes make-up designer John Chambers (John Goodman), Mendez put together a fake science-fiction movie project that was ostensibly considering Iran for location shooting. The embassy employees would be gotten out of the country by passing them off as Canadian production personnel. Affleck’s directing and the script, credited to Chris Terrio, are at their best during the first half. The opening scene, which dramatizes the seizing of the embassy and the employees’ escape, is suspenseful and, for all its complications, presented with admirable clarity. The Hollywood sections are even better. Chambers and Mendez recruit a (fictional) producer, played by Alan Arkin, to help them put the fake movie together. The scenes that follow do a hilarious job of satirizing the film business. Arkin, the picture’s standout performer, is terrific as the uncouth, no-nonsense movie veteran. The second half isn’t as strong. The script relies on a number of hackneyed suspense scenes--all contrived for the film--to elevate tension during the rescue. The obviousness tests one’s patience, and the airport climax in particular is ludicrous. Affleck’s lack of assurance and occasional sloppiness as a filmmaker become increasingly distracting as well. The editing often appears to be covering up for poor staging, and the sound quality is erratic. Apart from Arkin, who sounds crystal-clear, it’s not unusual to have to strain to hear what the actors are saying. But for all the film’s flaws, it’s enjoyable if one's expectations aren't raised too high by the accolades it's received.

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