By Richard Schickel
You’ve never—or rarely—seen such a lot of fuss and bother about getting an airplane off the ground as you witness in “Argo,” director-star Ben Affleck’s witty, well-made (and often comical) action-adventure movie. This may be because it is, as they say, “inspired” by true events, specifically the “extraction” of a half-dozen U.S. embassy employees in the midst of the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, when this group more or less waltzed out of the besieged compound and found refuge in the nearby Canadian legation. The picture finds a way to blend, of all things, quite funny Hollywood comedy—yes, you read that right—with not-so-funny derring-do in Tehran.
That’s where Affleck the actor comes in. He rather glumly plays Tony Mendez, the guy who has, as the movie says, “the best bad idea” back in Washington for getting this little group of trapped Americans to safety. He will pretend to be making a movie (with the aid of the comically expert Alan Arkin and John Goodman), go to Iran to scout locations and get the embassy employees on a Swissair flight to freedom. Next thing you know, Mendez’s got a really lousy script, some dismal storyboards and he’s in Tehran, talking himself in and out of trouble while a bunch of well-played Washington functionaries essentially wring their hands and try their best not to screw up the plan. It is basic to the film’s appeal that the movie people are smarter and funnier than the politicos.
I don’t know how much of the picture—beyond its basic premise—is “true.” And, frankly, I don’t give a damn. What’s really most interesting about this film, which I must say is occasionally too talkative for its own good, is that the obviously true bits are more interesting than the obviously made up pieces. When the more or less preposterous elements of the story turn out to be the stuff that’s authentic, a movie gets to be fascinating almost in spite of itself.
“Argo” gets off to something of slow start. It has a lot of plot business to take care of before it gets its boots on the ground in Tehran. But at a certain point, almost without our noticing it, the movie turns itself into a first-class action piece. Once Mendez gets his charges into a van and they start on their final dash to the plane, all kinds of good stuff is placed menacingly in their path—angry crowds, suspicious guards, missing tickets and, perhaps scariest of all, their need to maintain bland and cheerful faces without a care in the world—as they are processed by the maddening routines of airport ground personnel (something all of us know far too much about these days).
This is a movie after all. But ... wait a minute. It is also, at least in its broadest aspects, a true story. And, really, a compelling one. We have a tendency, I think, to overpraise pictures like this (the execrable “Looper” is a good current example), chiefly because of the solid professionalism, the straight and sturdy storyline, the sound performances and the mounting and well-orchestrated suspense. Movies like “Argo” are much rarer than we like to think they are. It is not a masterpiece, however. It is only a well-made and craftsman-like picture. Wait a minute! Did I say “only”? That’s a lot these days—can you name a recently comparable entertainment? A moviegoer looking for a good, intelligent time will have just that at “Argo.”
Warner Bros./Publicity Still
John Goodman, left, and Alan Arkin play the Hollywood professionals who provide the CIA with its cover story, and “Argo” with much of its humor.