Argo, the third film directed by Ben Affleck in his "look, I'm a confident, reliable nuts-and-bolts craftsman!" phase, is a solid, steady, well-constructed political-tinged thriller. "Like they don't make 'em anymore" is what you're supposed to say next, except they obviously do make 'em, because by all the available evidence, Argo was made. The difference being, they used to make 15 or 20 of 'em every year, instead of one every couple of years, and back then, a film like Argo would have been one taut, enjoyable movie out of many, nothing to sneeze at but also nothing crazily, excessively great. Instead, this perfectly lovely, immensely watchable, intermittently shallow, and slightly bloated thriller has been anointed as one of The Films Of Note this awards season, thus subjecting it to the kind of scrutiny, heightened expectations, and, I suspect, completely inevitable backlash that other solid, watchable thrillers like, say, Scorpio or Charlie Varrick didn't have to deal with. My apologies - the reviewer is obliged not to review the film's reception, only the film itself. But sometimes a film's reception is so deafening that it gets in the way of the film itself, and I find that has happened to Argo, at least for me.
Based on a true, formerly classified story, Argo tells of the long-ago days of the Iran hostage crisis, an event that is now apparently far enough back in the past that the movie needs to open with what is, for a mainstream thriller, a damned wonkish primer on the political situation in that country over the course of the 1970s. Having thus introduced us to the chess pieces, the film spends a lengthy amount of time setting them up, in what I'd cautiously describe as the most sustained and interesting part of the movie: weirdly, given how little it has to do with the "actual" content of the film. But let's not skip ahead - first we watch the chaotic, urgently-filmed sequence of the U.S. embassy in Tehran being besieged by Iranians furious at America's support and protection of the deposed Shah, with a half-dozen embassy employees managing to sneak out, barely, through a back entrance, ultimately finding sanctuary at the home of the Canadian ambassador. Then we get to the actual movie, which involves the CIA's attempts to spirit those six individuals out of what was, at that point, the most anti-U.S. nation in the world; after several bad ideas are discarded for being far too likely to attract far too much of the worst kind of attention, extraction specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck himself, who, you might not be aware, is not Latino) hits on the desperate gamble of posing as a Canadian film crew location scouting.This, in turn, triggers a trip to Los Angeles, where Mendez meets old friend of the CIA John Chambers (John Goodman), an Oscar-winning make-up artist who helps set up the fake movie - a Star Wars rip-off titled Argo - with the aid of crotchety (and fictional) producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), with all the spiky make-fun-of-Hollywood dialogue that you could hope for, and whatever else is true of Chris Terrio's screenplay, he has a way with dialogue.
So that takes care of the fun part; the thriller part comes when Mendez arrives in Iran and has to, in two days, train six terrified diplomats how to be master spies pretending to be film industry professionals, while also idly convincing the various members of the Iranian government that everything is just perfectly fine and not at all shady. And here the film owes a great deal to editor William Goldenberg, who finds every frame that he can massage out in order to make a film that, at two hours exactly, streaks by like a lightning bolt; and also to composer Alexandre Desplat, who writes a hugely useful score (though not at his peak - that he's likelier to win an Oscar nomination for this than for Moonrise Kingdom is sheer lunacy) that is rousing and raging and makes the whole thing seem ridiculously exciting and tense, and would likely have been able to do the same thing for the potato-eating scenes in The Turin Horse, if somebody has asked him, so exciting and snazzy it is, albeit in a conventional way.
The film, dismayingly does not owe all that much to Affleck, in either of his capacities: his performance is more "evenhanded" than great, largely because Mendez is less of a person and more of a mechanical element in a script that is long on mechanical elements, where all of the really stand-out performances are either given by the people who get to deliver the choicest funny lines (Arkin, Bryan Cranston as Mendez's addled supervisor), or who get to be the steeliest and weepiest of the six terrified Americans (the strongest of whom - staggeringly - is Clea DuVall, an actress I have generally regarded as someone to tolerate rather than to regard her as any kind of net positive for any movie that casts her). His direction, meanwhile, is perfectly sturdy and while he's not as good at aping '70s-style filmmaking as he thinks he is - much too much hand-held and the camera moves too quickly and too often in general - the film has a similarly clean, workmanlike spartan quality to his other pictures. But he's not great at handling the thriller aspects of the film, continuing the gentle downward trend of his directorial career thus far: Gone Baby Gone was a crackerjack character drama directed with intelligent restraint, The Town was a solid character drama that didn't quite stick the transition to its genre elements, and now Argo mostly eschews character drama in favor of genre, and there's an overriding "this is good but it's not, like OHMYGOD good" feeling to the whole thing; like it's not just that the tight editing and burning score help make the film intense, but that they're the only things making the film intense, and the actual on-set filmmaking is stuck in the more laconic, conversational style that worked so damn well in Gone Baby Gone - which, I think not coincidentally, did not star Affleck, the only one of his directorial projects where he didn't have to split his attention - and doesn't quite find the roaring urgency that the film keeps promising us is going to happen, right...
(Then there's the hugely self-congratulatory end credits montage equating the real people involved with their movie counterparts; a directorial gesture with its heart in the right place, maybe, but I truly did not like it).
It is still, Lord knows, easy to watch and easy to like, and the no-bullshit sensibility that Affleck favors as a storyteller remains giddily refreshing in an era of popcorn filmmaking that wants desperately to make everything more complicated and confusing. And it is, too, that most storied and elusive of thriller-type movies: the genre movie that is, if not strictly for intelligent adults, certainly much less interested in antagonising them than the great bulk of action-adventure cinema in the age of CGI and superheroes. I can't imagine it becoming a classic on the scale of the movies it desperately wants to be compared to, but it feels exactly like the kind of film that one stops at, every time it appears on TV, with some clear if unspecific thought along the lines of "that was a really good movie, I can watch that for a while". Which is also, in its way, the mark of a much smaller but no less effective breed of classic.