I don’t think any of us expected Ben Affleck to make the year’s best throwback movie. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where his third feature, "Argo" is set, directors like Sidney Lumet ("Serpico") and Alan Pakula ("All the President’s Men"), would turn out pop thrillers on a yearly basis that were fraught with tension, packed with social subtext, and entertaining as all hell. No one will ever call Affleck a visionary filmmaker; I’d put money on that. But he recreates the feel of those aforementioned artists with great zeal - the stench of cigarettes seems permanently attached to every frame, post-Watergate cynicism creeping into every scene; and it brings us back to a bygone era the movies desperately miss. It was an era where sometimes, Hollywood made movies for grownups.
Affleck’s film actually feels more like three. We open with the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran in November, 1979. Many were taken prisoner, but six Americans escaped; soon finding themselves camping out in the home of a Canadian diplomat and forced to hide every moment of every day. Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck,) an "ex-filtration" expert tasked with getting them out under the least conspicuous possible means (the CIA’s top plan before they get to Mendez: give these people bikes, and let them ride their way to the border.)
And so it’s up to Mendez, and his overwhelming beard, to come up with "the best bad idea we have" - faking plans for a sci-fi movie in the Middle East that would require location scouting in Tehran. Once Mendez got there (disguised as a Canadian film producer), he would contact the Americans and smuggle them out as if they were members of the crew. So out to Hollywood Affleck goes for the first act; buying a script (a "Star Wars" rip-off called "Argo") and hobnobbing with producers and directors (John Goodman and Alan Arkin are standouts; also look out for Michael Parks’ two-second cameo as comic book legend Jack Kirby,) until he can properly fake his way through the day-by-day procedures as if he were a studio big shot.
It’s all done as satire - Affleck seems to be having fun equating filmmaking with politics; and talking about how they’re both endeavors equally laced with unqualified hacks and endless boardroom bullshit - and the film, indeed, is never this funny again. By about the 45-minute mark, we’re back to Tehran basements and political intrigue. In short, this is where it becomes a Sidney Lumet movie. Watching Affleck talk these six prisoners in their roles - giving them crash courses in being a bullshit artist - is almost as entertaining as the Hollywood stuff, if not nearly as funny.
Unfortunately, Ben can’t let us forget this is his movie, so we’re forced to sit through sequence after sequence where he soulfully pines for his faraway wife and son (hell, he has the audacity, in one shot, to equate his character with John Wayne’s iconic turn in "The Searchers.") And indeed, the third act devolves into Mendez hero-worship, with all the character work and sly satire thrown out for a straight-faced tension fest, milking the hostages’ escape for every last gasp. Admittedly, it’s effective, but it feels tacked on from a much less original movie. (And it is a lot more tense than the account that Mendez wrote of on the CIA website.)
As a director, Affleck keeps the film snappy, poppy, and fresh (it goes without saying that his vast attention to the period details, from the mustaches to the soundtrack, is a delight.) Yet for all the times he models himself after Lumet and Pakula, or after Ford, or after other clear influences like Costa-Gavres (an esteemed filmmaker of 70s political thrillers,) he misses something that very much felt like their reason d’etre. He has no stance.
I think it would be impossible to make a movie about US/Iranian relations that had less to say about our current situation than "Argo." This is a crowd-pleaser through and through, and while some subtext might be gleaned about the disingenuous nature of politics in the early going, Affleck is much more interested in keeping you on the edge of your seat than he is in saying something about the situation he’s depicting. Affleck has everything but a strong vision; "Argo" does just about everything else right - it’s funny, it’s fast, and it’s furiously tense. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think this period piece time traveled from the Golden Age of Hollywood that it depicts.