The Sweet Escape

It’s October, the month when the leaves start to die and the Oscar bait comes out to play. It can be a stuffy time, full of pretentious melodrama and period pictures that look so tedious they couldn’t possibly be enjoyable (I’m looking at you, “Lincoln”). A-list actors slum it in ugly makeup and put on ridiculous vocal affects in order to win that special golden statue. But sometimes a movie comes along well within these cookie-cutter boundaries that still manages to make you feel something. “Argo” is a film that deserves many awards for making you feel a great many things. That it manages to make you laugh, scream and maybe even cry all in a tightly choreographed 120-minute package is something truly remarkable.

Of the few actors to successfully transition to directing, only those with severe gravitas were able to do it successfully — your Clint Eastwoods, your Robert Redfords. But when Ben Affleck premiered his debut feature “Gone Baby Gone” only a few years after the double-whammy of “Gigli” and “Daredevil” (the peak of the Ben Affleck backlash that felt like it would never end), its success couldn’t be attributed to low expectations. Affleck had bested the odds and crafted a film that was full of twists and turns, but with an emotional core that left an indelible mark on its audience. His follow-up, “The Town,” was something totally different: a heist movie with a bigger cast and even larger ambitions. While it was an expertly crafted blockbuster, it didn’t inspire the same passion as his debut and felt interchangeable with the work of any other lesser-known director.

“Argo” changes course for Affleck’s directorial career by investing more into his premise than making it a tight thriller. “Argo” has something to say about the world of 1979, and by comparison the world we live in today. In the film, no one, not even the Iranian people, see the 1979 revolution coming. It comes so far out of left field that, when we jump right into the embassy moments before it is raided, no one inside understands the magnitude of what is about to happen. The six would-be hostages who manage to escape via a back door are turned away by the Brits and Kiwis until they find an ally in the Canadian ambassador. This marks one of those rare occurrences in American history in which we can un-ironically thank our neighbors to the north.

Our refugees find their hideout, but getting out of the embassy was just the easy part. With only bad ideas on the table, Affleck’s CIA agent Tony Mendez comes up with the “crazy idea that just might work.” Disguised as a Canadian film crew, Mendez will fly into Tehran alone, meet with the six Americans and then bring them all back home. Sounds pretty easy, huh?

Affleck does a superb job of showing all the logistics and hurdles that go into this plan, from organizing the fake production company for the fake movie with a real script and real producer (played by the great Alan Arkin, sure to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor). Zipping from D.C. to Hollywood to Iran and back again, “Argo” keeps the stakes high by making every little piece as important as the last. Getting the movie put in the latest issue of Variety becomes as crucial to the success of the mission as the fake passports.

But the main problem with “Argo” is that all these actions can feel like they’re in a bubble, with little standing in the way of Affleck’s plan other than the plan itself. The closest thing to an antagonist is a menacing Iranian intelligence officer who is always a dozen steps away from discovering the refugees, but never feels like much of a threat when he spends most of the movie safely behind a desk. This is confounded by the utilitarian cinematography, which keeps things simple and forces the script to bring the electric charge that makes the movie so exhilarating.

But this is just one small nagging problem in a film that still manages to be remarkably tight and well-coordinated. Affleck’s direction makes everything from stamping paperwork to handing over a business card as tense as a firing squad, and each of the six refugees has enough personality to make you actually want them to survive.

It’s funny enough that Affleck gave himself the most thankless role of the whole film, which provides him neither the humor that makes his partners in the CIA and Hollywood so enjoyable nor the emotion that makes the refugees so intriguing. Instead, he spends the movie in the same sense of calm that you’d expect from an actual CIA agent. Plus he’s saddled with that ridiculous haircut.

Regardless of Affleck’s ’70s mop, part of “Argo”’s power (and a large part of its appeal to Academy voters) is the way it illustrates the potential of filmmaking. It is also a political story of international collaboration and turmoil, a time in American history in which the unthinkable happened.

Connections to the modern day abound in this period piece, whether it’s the recent embassy attacks in Libya or the unpredictable nature of terrorism that makes it capable of bringing down embassies and towers alike. Affleck brings a lot of brains to “Argo,” and he manages to connect them with everything that makes a movie fun to watch. Whether he’ll be able to make a film that can continue his growing ambition while still holding onto that personal touch that made his debut so refreshing has yet to be seen, but the future looks mighty bright.

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