Argo is a skillful, dramatic entertainment. It's slick.
Argo will be very popular. Why wouldn't it be? It hits all the right harmonious notes, without any dissonance, It's Ben Affleck channeling Hallmark. Greetings from Iran.
Argo is an antiseptic thriller - fast, furious, and facile. It skates on the shiny surface of reality.
In its rush to be "feel-good," Argo sacrifices a lot - such as depth and credibility. It has thrills and laughs; it just doesn't have much substance.
Based loosely - extremely loosely - by screenwriter Chris Terrio on actual events, Argo is the compelling story of the attempt to rescue six Americans who escaped from a mob that stormed the U.S. Embassy and took hostages in Tehran on November 4, 1979.
The six hid in the domicile of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). The Iranians don't know they are there, but if they're found out they face execution. It's a situation fraught with dread.
Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) - an exfiltration expert - comes up with the idea that the only feasible way to rescue the Americans is to pretend to be a Canadian film group scouting Iran for a sci-fi film they're going to make, which will enable them to go to Iran and extricate the six "houseguests."
But the fake movie has to be believable, so Tony goes to Hollywood and enlists a makeup man (John Goodman) and a producer (Alan Arkin) to develop and publicize the phantom movie.
The government hesitantly supports the make-shift plan. It's put into action by Tony who travels to Iran to try to execute it in the face of lethal danger. Each step is risky.
As in The Town, director Affleck at times is given to overwrought effects, but he keeps the action flowing.
The camera work by Rodrigo Prieto is effective. Affleck likes to use shots of objects - phones, a yellow ribbon, an eye, a teargas cannister, a pile of folders, and a tangle of paper shreds.
Affleck and Prieto have good visual sense, such as a distant shot of Tony standing alone on a balcony with a wall of glass windows isolating him.
Argo tries to gain some authenticity by using television clips of newsmen: Ted Koppel, David Frost, Mike Wallace, Tom Brokaw, and even Walter Cronkite, et al. But clips are just clips. Authenticity demands more.
The script by Terrio has some amusing, gentle satire of Hollywood. But in the action and suspense scenes, it gives in to contrivance.
Everything works out - I mean, everything. And most of it happens in the very last second possible. "Whew" we go again and again. Luck gets no respite; it's incredibly overworked.
Terrio creates partial characters - the six escapees are a bland bunch. But they're also obvious and contrived. The most cowardly of the group stands up and is heroic. Another character whose loyalty is questioned turns out to be a paragon of loyalty. But don't worry, that character winds up ok. There's hardly a scratch on anybody.
Argo's ending is tied up in a neat, conventional bow. The final words about our hero that appear on the screen are, "He lives in rural Maryland with his family." That's it?
The acting is strong when the actors are given anything of value to do. Ben Affleck makes an earnest, stalwart protagonist. John Goodman and Alan Arkin enliven proceedings as the Hollywood duo. And Vincent Garber is a nice man as the Canadian Ambassador.
Argo does what it sets out to do. It thrills and doesn't provoke.
In Hollywood - both today and yesterday - that's entertainment.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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