(by Dustin Putman
At the time of this writing, "Argo" has not yet opened in theaters. Mark my words, though: critics and upscale audiences are going to fall all over themselves praising the film as the Second Coming, simply because it smartly tells an inspiring, politically charged true story stranger, some might say, than fiction. "Argo" is a shoo-in for a gaggle of Oscars and end-of-year accolades and its fans will prattle on for days about how this is how a person - in this case, director Ben Affleck (2010's "The Town") - is supposed to make a grown-up Hollywood picture. There will be no dispelling here that "Argo" is reasonably solid, capably acted, and worth at least a single look. A truly great film, though? Not a chance. There are no deeper messages beyond what's up on the screen, its narrative is too stodgily straightforward, and how things play out too routine to make more than a cursory mark. True, this particular story has only been made public since it became declassified in 1997, but variations using the same incessantly conventional storytelling are more than just a little familiar. Article continues below
In August 1979, rioting Tehran locals led a U.S. Embassy takeover, sending six American workers to seek refuge at the Canadian ambassador's house. Stranded with no way to escape Iran without the threat of capture and execution, they have no choice but to await rescue. Enter CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), who, inspired by his young son's love of sci-fi movies, comes up with a plan so crazy it just might work: travel to Hollywood, join forces with master make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), and option an actual script under the guise that the film will be shot on location in Iran. In actuality, it will be a ruse to not only reach the half-dozen trapped Americans, but, in giving them fake identities and carefully assigned behind-the-scenes roles, their only hope in getting out of the foreign country safe and unnoticed.
Named after the title of the bogus cinematic production Mendez pretends to spearhead, a "Star Wars" clone set in a Middle East-like environment, "Argo" weaves a tale that might have been labeled far-fetched were it not true. The opening scenes, depicting the start of the infamous Iran hostage crisis, is nothing short of riveting, and Mendez's experiences in Hollywood -a milieu where he is in over his head, but which he nonetheless views with intoxicating awe (loved the scene set looking out over the hills of Los Angeles at twilight, scored to Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away") - suggest an insider's view of moviemaking and the wheeling and dealing that goes into it. Unfortunately, this section is over too quickly, leaving the remainder of "Argo" to revert to more standard plotting.
Workaholic Mendez is separated from his wife, natch, and not around for his son nearly as much as he would like. The elaborate scheme once Mendez travels overseas and the locale returns to Iran covers the ins and outs of what it will take to fly safely out of the country without being fingered, but it is here that it also loses a side of the quirky, entertaining details related to the fake production of "Argo." One of them poses as a script supervisor, another as a costume designer and so on, but director Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio (adapting from the Wired magazine article "The Great Escape" by Joshuah Bearman) might as well be asking them to pose as department store clerks; as long as they can convince the security at the airport that they are the people their passports claim, their roles within the film shoot don't really play a part in the proceedings. Thus, the story boils down to the suspense that comes with Mendez and his imperiled countrymen not getting caught, but fails to dig much deeper than that.
In recent years, Ben Affleck has taken to casting himself in his own directorial efforts, helping the multi-hyphenate to reclaim the respect from studios and audiences he nearly lost. No longer wasting his time on sucky projects guaranteed to provide him robust paydays and lots of criticisms once said movies come out, Affleck has admirably returned to placing artistry over easy fame and materialism. As Tony Mendez, Affleck is an arresting central anchor, the brave catalyst who has sacrificed a lot in order to succeed at his demanding profession. Recognizable actors fill out virtually every other role in the hulking ensemble, and there isn't a weak link among them. With most, like Bryan Cranston (2011's "Drive") as CIA manager Jack O'Donnell and Kyle Chandler (2011's "Super 8") as presidential advisor Hamilton Jordan, they are only asked to satisfy their all-business requirements. Others get a little more meat, particularly welcome addition Clea DuVall (2010's "Conviction") as Cora Lijek, one of the entrapped Americans; John Goodman (2011's "Red State") as Savini-esque make-up man John Chambers, and Alan Arkin (2011's "The Change-Up"), delivering one particularly truthful moment as movie producer Lester Siegel, who has accepted but regrets the semi-estranged relationship he shares with his grown daughters - like Mendez in the film's present, a byproduct of choosing his job over being a parent who is always around for his kids. Once introduced, Goodman and Arkin exit the frame far too expediently, only popping up again during an ending that is akin to a bunch of people patting themselves on the back.
"Argo" isn't shy about spelling out its thematic aims; the postscript states outright that the events dramatized are a testament to separate governments putting aside their differences to work in tandem for a common goal. If one ventures further beneath the surface, he or she will find a shallow and plodding - if occasionally crackerjack - thriller designed like a magic trick, occupying the viewers' attention while pulling the wool over everybody's eyes. The film has been dynamically shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (2011's "We Bought a Zoo"), while all other technical attributes place the setting squarely within the days of the late-'70s and early-'80s. "Argo" is a good picture, certainly, but no more than that. In spite of what others might claim, there just isn't much substance here beyond the patently obvious.