Argo is a lean, terse, and successful little thriller

Ben Affleck’s third feature as director Argo (2012), now playing at the Hyland Cinema, is a lean, terse, and successful little thriller about a CIA mission to extricate a group of US Embassy employees who splintered off from the main pack during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980. They were actually housed by the Canadian ambassador to Iran and hid out in his home unable to go outside for fear of being spotted and captured by the roaming revolutionaries.

Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, a top-50 CIA agent as the end credits inform us (whatever that means), and the man in charge of coming up with a scheme to get the six hostages out under concocted identities. The hair-brained scheme he comes up with is to create a film company, a fake B-movie, and then, using the pretense of the hostages being part of a Canadian film crew, get them past Iranian customs. The mission was declassified in 1997 under the Clinton Administration and is by all accounts based on fact. Previously Canadians had believed it was their own doing, although Affleck’s film has faced criticism for minimizing the role that the Canadian ambassador played. Affleck apparently sought out former ambassador Ken Taylor in order to rectify the situation with a new postscript to film following criticism at its TIFF premier this past fall.

The film is being tipped for awards, and while it is a good effort, I can’t help but think like many recent winners, it’s being praised more for filling the vacuum of intelligent genre film than for really being great. There was a time in the 1970s, even as late as the 90s, when this type of film was made bigger and better. Affleck’s film is greatly indebted to 70s classics like Three Days of the Condor but isn’t at that level. For one, Hollywood used to throw its weight behind these type of professional thrillers. Now it’s a struggle for a star like Affleck to even get a budget for something like this. And frankly, the cost-cutting is readily apparent and lessens the visceral nature of the film’s more tense scenes.

I actually think this is the least good of Affleck’s films. His previous two thrillers, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), were both set in his native Boston, Mass. and his ear for that type of dialogue seems more attuned. Here the G-men are all fairly generic, and while well played by the likes of Bryan Cranston, their quips and tough-guy banter feel writ and gets chortles rather than real laughs. The Hollywood producers who help Affleck put together his fake movie are also overblown, and while John Goodman and Alan Arkin have a lot of fun, some of the dialogue is a little groan inducing.

Affleck’s performance is just fine. He’s always been okay when he keeps it low-key and takes the focus off himself, which he does here with a loaded supporting cast. His best leading man parts have been in white color roles like Changing Lanes (2002). This is in his range and he gets away with it despite his dramatic limitations. I did feel that the story of his estranged family was a cheap way of giving the character a sympathetic side. It was stacking the deck rather than character development. As this is an economically shot and told thriller, there’s not much room for character. Again, they used to do this kind of thing better.

That applies to the direction as well. When you have a slight budget, often you’re forced to shoot tight on foreground figures and lose the perspective of background and setting. Many of the film’s supposed locations require that the camera not wander to reveal that they’re not where they say they are. This is a problem for the film’s tense climax because typically a film will draw in its scope on the characters - close-ups and claustrophobic framings - to indicate a sweltering, pressured pace to the events. Here, since the whole movie is shot with steady cam and in tight, there’s little noticeable change in how the film operates between the expository early scenes and the climax. This undermines the suspense, which already suffers from way too much cross-cutting between events that need to preposterously synchronize exactly for the mission to move forward.

This is still a well-performed and intriguing story that is competently told. It’s not the film’s fault that something this ‘perfectly fine’ is getting awards buzz. That just shows the lack of quality mature entertainment on the marketplace today. In years past this might not get points just for trying, but I do applaud the effort, and expect everyone will feel it worthwhile to go check it out at the Hyland this week if you didn’t see it in wide release.

(Out of 4 Stars)

Paul Hantiuk is a local film enthusiast and occasional freelance writer.