Ben Affleck strays beyond Boston's city limits to direct this international espionage caper and gets a little lost.
By now, everyone’s over the fact that Ben Affleck – who once frolicked on a yacht in a J-Lo video – has set out his stall as a serious director. Apparently, good looks and filmmaking talent aren’t mutually exclusive. Gone Baby Gone was a solid, muscular detective thriller; The Town was rife with tension and betrayal.
For his third film as director, the Massachusetts boy has finally strayed beyond Boston’s city limits but, unfortunately, he’s got a little lost. You can’t blame him for allowing a true story as juicy as this one to lure him out of his comfort zone. 'The Canadian Caper' is a recently declassified, too-barmy-to-be-believed doozy to rank alongside exploding cigars and poisoned umbrella tips in the annals of international espionage.
In 1980, in the midst of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, CIA operative Tony Mendez and six embassy staff escaped Tehran on a flight to Switzerland by posing as the crew of a fictional Hollywood sci-fi film, complete with posters, costumes and an office on the old Columbia lot. The real-life Mendez was a former head of the CIA's Disguise Section, whose CV included transforming an Asian diplomat and a black agent into two Caucasian businessmen (eat your heart out, Wayans brothers).
Affleck’s Mendez is a much less interesting character, vaguely defined by over-familiar traits – workaholic, estranged from his family, glugs whisky from the bottle in stressful moments. The supporting cast is superb (Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman), but as they move their interesting faces in interesting ways, it’s hard not to wish that one of them had been drafted in to work their magic on the underwritten lead.
Even sporting a beard, Ben Affleck isn’t craggy enough, and neither is his storytelling style. This is an episode illustrating the dubious history of western intervention in the Middle East that’s fit-to-burst with contemporary resonance, yet Argo prefers to swiftly spoonfeed the politics in order to remove it from the table.
The opening sequence is a dummy’s guide to twentieth-century Iran, complete with cartoon illustrations. You don’t need to be a fan of Washington Post op-eds to feel patronised. But never mind the serious stuff, worse is that Argo fails to tease out the delicious, self-aggrandising irony of a movie about how movies saved the world and, as a result, never has as much fun as it should.
There are a thousand brilliant details in the 2007 Wired article which could have made this the Great Satan’s celebratory ‘up yours’ to po-faced, booze-banning theocrats everywhere. It settles instead for a few industry in-jokes: "You’re worried about the Ayatollah, try the WGA!!!" (Ha ha, ROFL, etc.) Affleck is a straight-forward, square-jawed maker of straight-forward, square-jawed thrillers, which is just what you want from a blue-collar Boston crime saga, but not so much with a story as rich with subtext as this.
For now it seems a crudely insulting YouTube clip with bargain basement production values will remain American cinema’s most pointed intervention in the Middle East. On the plus side, Argo does prove what many of us have long suspected: in certain circumstances, good looks can, in fact, be a barrier to filmmaking greatness.
We read the Wired feature, we enjoyed The Town, we’re hyped.
It’s impossible to be bored by a story this good, especially with that cast.
Tormented by visions of the movie that might have been.