Perhaps more than any other male American star of his generation, Ben Affleck understands the narrative advantage of having Hollywood on your side. The Good Will Hunting co-screenwriter and co-star won an Oscar at age 25 in large part because he and collaborator Matt Damon, as struggling actors who created their own showcase, had the best behind-the-scenes story of the year. Later, in his days as J. Lo arm candy and box-office poison — or so the story goes — Affleck bad-decisioned his way onto Hollywood's bad side and felt the full force of the industry's greatest weapon, its publicity machine.
Affleck's experience as both the beneficiary and target of that apparatus informs Argo, his third directorial effort. Set amid the 1979-1980 Iran hostage crisis, Argo is a "gritty" historical drama overwhelmed by its love of Hollywood as an inventor of imaginary narratives with real consequences, a great generator of American bedtime stories whose magic works on suburban kids and foreign enemies alike.
After an Iranian Revolution for Dummies prologue, the movie proper begins with the November 4, 1979, attack on the U.S. embassy in Tehran. While 52 Americans are held hostage, six embassy workers manage to escape, ultimately hiding out at the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to review the available strategies.
Directed by Ben Affleck.
Starring Ben Affleck, Victor Garber, John Goodman and Alan Arkin.
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Determined to smuggle the houseguests out of Iran by disguising them as a film crew on a location scout, Tony enlists the help of John Chambers (John Goodman), a movie makeup artist, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), an old-school producer Chambers pulls off the lifetime-achievement circuit to give the "production" credibility. Between hokey wisecracks ribbing industry idiocy, the trio seizes on a dusty, in-turnaround script for a Middle East-set Star Wars rip off called Argo, taking steps to get the trade papers to put their narrative in print.
The spirit of the Hollywood of the 1970s is not just Affleck's partial subject but his evident inspiration. The most telling of many references to movies of the era might be an almost-thrown-away shot of a Vietnam vet on TV declaring that the hostage crisis has made him "mad as hell, like that man screaming on that movie program Network." Affleck later intercuts an Iranian revolutionary press conference with the boozy Hollywood event launched to sell the Argo fiction, belaboring their similarities as "productions," the tools of media creation functioning as tools of warfare on both sides.
With its walk-and-talk exposition drops and insistent score, the movie moves; if anything, Affleck is concerned with clockwork to a fault. The script is full of temporal straw men, gimmicky turns and roadblocks designed to ratchet tension at regular intervals, as well as impossible-to-miss symbolism. The first post-prologue shot is of an American flag on fire, and in the final scene, an intact specimen of the same waves behind the hero; even as the protagonists face mortal danger in between, Argo is such a beautiful rendition of Hollywood formula that a happy ending never seems in doubt.
The great movies of the period Argo depicts, even when they were period pieces, nailed something about the American experience in the moment in which they were made. Argo doesn't reflect who we are now so much as it argues for what Hollywood can be. It's an embodiment of the kind of quality adult film that really shouldn't be an endangered species and a love letter from its director and star to the industry that made him, briefly shunned him and loves nothing more than to be loved.