Pity those among us who are pathetically pickled in their own sour brine. They’ll never fully feel the moment in Ben Affleck’s exciting new thriller, “Argo,” when, as the idiots used to say on “The A-Team,” the “plan comes together.”
You’ll want to clap. Or pump a fist. Or grunt your satisfaction into the general hubbub of enthralled moviegoers. A certain amount of residual audience patriotism is involved in all that good cheer, but then it seems to me such feelings are beyond politics – and, in truth, beyond aesthetics too. Pride in America and concern for fellow Americans are probably in the very DNA of citizenship, and you have to feel a little for the schlemiels who either don’t feel it or are ashamed of it when they do.
You will at “Argo” (leave your abashedness at home). It’s why some in the audience applauded at the end of the film. It’s also, no doubt, why many are touting its likelihood as a Best Picture nominee at the end of February.
I certainly wouldn’t argue that. But if the Oscar Best Picture nominees list were to go back to a final five, not 10, I have a feeling “Argo” would – quite justifiably – have trouble making the cut.
It’s a first-rate thriller based on a real story about what happened when a CIA expert in “exfiltration” (where trained operatives secretly get embattled people out of foreign countries, not in) improvises a fake film company to liberate six American employees stranded at the Canadian embassy during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81.
Some of us will remember that only too well. Among other things, it spawned a TV news show – ABC’s “Nightline.” Those too young to remember the ignominies of the President Carter years will get an enormously tense and exciting crash course in it all at the beginning of “Argo” – how an angry mob stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, took its inhabitants hostage and demanded the return of their former Shah from America to face trial in Iran for crimes against his own people during his pro-American rule.
That expert “exfiltrationist,” Tony Mendez, actually invented a fake film company to smuggle the six stranded Americans out of the Canadian embassy is, in itself, a little hilarious. And when this movie gives itself permission to be funny, it’s very droll indeed. But then, what would you expect from a film wise enough to hire John Goodman to play the makeup artist/sometime spy who advised on the plan and Alan Arkin to play the (fictional) producer of the fake film with just enough of a “distinguished” movie career to make it all look kosher?
I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to see Arkin unleashed on screen making sardonic jokes again. I enjoyed it so much that, frankly, I wanted a good deal more of it from “Argo.”
Wanting more, in fact, is the only problem you may have with “Argo.” I think director/star Affleck was so determined to pay tribute to the real people involved that he stuck to stark, semi-documentary realism whenever he safely could.
It’s laudable of him, and it doesn’t make his movie any less suspenseful a thriller, that’s for sure. Nor does it make it any less commanding to watch. This is a very pleasurable grown-up’s night at the movies by any possible estimate.
But I think there’s something missing, and it seems to me it may misread the American personality. Ever since we’ve had movies in the TV era, there’s been, I think, a kind of “Die Hard”-ish bravado in many Americans waiting for a chance to emerge.
You don’t see even a tiny mote of it in any of the people involved in the operation in “Argo.” So attentive has Affleck been to a plausible reality that the actors he hired have uncanny resemblances to the original people (including, in a small role, Buffalo-born Kyle Chandler as Carter’s main man Hamilton Jordan).
All you see is either fear and trepidation or professional confidence and competence. Affleck has tried to be so true to CIA professionalism that he’s excised every drop of John Wayne residue from the American personality (and, of course, from everyone involved in the operation).
I’d be willing to bet that someone in that bunch had a drop or two of bravado left, however false it may have been.
It would have kicked the resultant film up a notch, as Emeril might say.
No matter. It’s a smart and hugely enjoyable action thriller as it is, with some wicked humor and a feel-good ending that’s manipulative, sure, but was, in part, bequeathed to us by history.
There was applause at the end of this week’s screening. Nothing could be more natural than to slap of couple of palms together in happy appreciation.
3 and 1/2 stars
Starring: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, Kyle Chandler
Director: Ben Affleck
Running time: 120 minutes
Rating: R for language and some violent images.
The Lowdown: Based on the true story of the CIA’s setup of a fake Hollywood movie production to liberate several American embassy workers during the Iran hostage crisis.