Argo: Relevant by Accident

10/12/2012 4:00 AM |

Directed by Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck’s taut thriller about the Iranian hostage crisis couldn’t have asked for better or worse timing. Arriving in the wake of the latest waves of Middle East violence—including attacks on an American embassy—the film is uncannily relevant even as the sobering real-world news stands in contrast to the movie’s B-movie ambitions. Still, there’s much to be said for even such ambitions when they’re met so satisfyingly. This is the kind of movie we look to Hollywood to make, deploying its budget and stars in the service of a well-told story.

A welcome throwback to 70s craftsmanship, it’s practically The French Connection compared to the sound and fury of most recent thrillers. Argo begins with a harrowing raid on the American embassy in Tehran, resulting in dozens of hostages; six manage to escape into hiding. Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the CIA spy who orchestrates a daring plan to exfiltrate the six by disguising them as a film crew for a fictitious Star Wars rip-off called “Argo.” This is a true story, though many of the more dramatic set pieces seem to have been invented.

The plan hopes to succeed through its sheer audacity, with any bumps that arise smoothed over by a global fascination with Hollywood glamor. (Tensions rise when an Iranian official expresses displeasure with sci-fi over romantic comedies. Everyone, it seems, wants to be a director.) By design, this is the kind of thriller that can’t rely on shoot-outs or car chases, giving it a form of tension that’s far more satisfying. Affleck is backed by a cast of heavies including John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston and Philip Baker Hall. All are solid, but they’re used more for their presence than their gifts. The hostages carry the weight of the film and more of their ordeal—with fewer Hollywood shenanigans—would’ve set the stakes higher.

Argo recalls Munich, but the differences between the two are telling. The latter had something to say not just about Middle Eastern politics but also the morality of a mission with no clear end or innocents. Argo nods to the ways in which US policies inflame anti-Western sentiment and how Americans are not immune from the kind of hatred that leads to violence. But it’s mostly content to stick with espionage thrills. There’s value in that, but with Iran still a hotbed of unrest, there’s nothing here that screams urgency.

Opens October 12