On paper, Argo sounds like material for a comedy, even a farce: adapted by Chris Terrio from a true story, Ben Affleck’s film centers on a so-crazy-it-just-might-work plan to get six Americans out of Iran during the 1979-80 hostage crisis by convincing the Revolutionary Guards that the diplomatic paper-pushers were members of a Canadian film crew visiting Tehran to scout locations for a Star Wars rip-off.
On screen, though, Argo is two tense hours of drama, with Hollywood satire limited to the occasional dry quip. Even the most ridiculous scene, a reading of the script by actors in costume—an event purely meant to convince the press that the project was real—is staged with restraint, intercut with shots of the hostages whose lives may depend on the producers’ ability to make the world believe that someone was spending millions of dollars on yet another wanna-Chewbacca. The CIA figured that would be more plausible than posing the escapees as wayward humanitarians, and if you’ve ever seen Spacehunter 3D, you understand why.
In a movie like this, success depends on sharing enough personal details about the characters’ lives to make us care about them, without distracting from the central drama. Here too, Affleck is restrained: we learn a bit about the histories of the six hostages and the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) who shelters them at great personal risk, but Affleck holds tight to the many threads of a complicated plot that involves the creation of a fake studio with a producer (Alan Arkin) and an FX man (John Goodman, playing makeup great John Chambers).
That was a good call by the director and screenwriter. Whether it was the right decision for Affleck to cast himself as hero Tony Mendez—the CIA agent who engineered the escape and flew out of Iran with the hostages—is less clear. Affleck performs creditably, but the role requires him to underplay, and the film might have been more compelling with an actor who can generate more heat (and communicate more intelligence) with subtle body language: an Ed Norton, say, or a Mark Ruffalo.
As long as I’m recasting the film, I have to confess that though I admired Affleck’s direction, I found myself constantly wishing it were Steven Spielberg behind the lens. One of Spielberg’s gifts is to deploy precisely the right details to grab your heart even as he keeps the tension high; as recently as War Horse, he traipsed through several stories and made us care about each one. Affleck isn’t quite at that level, but the mere fact that the comparison suggests itself is testament to his achievement.
Based on the film’s success at the Toronto Film Festival, Roger Ebert has already put his money on Argo to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. That seems like a safe bet, and if Argo does win, it will be easy for any film fanatic to find more artful, more ambitious, more risky films that might have earned the honor. It would be a lie, though, to say that Argo disappoints: you won’t even notice the two hours, or the popcorn, disappear.