The teenagers cleaning the theater couldn't sweep up the popcorn fast enough. Plans had taken a turn and a friend and I found ourselves waiting in an empty queue for a late night showing of Argo in a deserted mall. The screening before had released a stampede of married couples, old people, and ladies who lunch all muttering about the merits of Ben Affleck. We waited. I tried not to listen to their comments. With only a few stragglers left, it was too late...we were cornered. Argo had attracted the rare breed of movie talker: the person who can really only talk about a movie with any certainty to people who haven't seen the movie, and who asks said people to explain to them how key parts of the movie were working. She was waiting for her husband, and in the meantime she wanted to impart deep thoughts. "It really gets you thinking about what's happening now, you know?" she said. When we didn't respond well, she repeated it to the two others who had appeared behind us in the empty queue. "All the stuff in the Middle East. All the riots." Her query, besides, was a squawked question: "I still don't know where those pictures came from. Where did those pictures come from? How did they get them?" When her husband showed up, he looked at her like she was a moron. "Easily. I'll explain it to you later." If they're the photos I'm thinking of, she had to have been asleep through the movie. This was our introduction to Argo: a movie tailor-made for old people, a movie that makes shallow people think shallowly deep thoughts, a movie where people are like "oh hey, did you know Ben Affleck directs now?"
Yes. There are things Ben Affleck does. He probably brushes his teeth, for example. One would assume. Apart from that, however, he has now directed three films and I am prepared to go on record with my opinion that Ben Affleck is a better director than an actor. He's an alright actor, sure, but he's got a sort of preternatural knack for helming a thriller, and he seems to know how to get the best performances out of himself. In Argo, Affleck stars as real-life CIA operative Tony Mendez. In the do or die days following the 1979 storming of the US embassy in Tehran that resulted in the Iran Hostage Crisis, Mendez was one of the men charged with the task of devising a way to sweep in and rescue the six American embassy employees who had managed to escape capture and hide away unseen in the Canadian ambassador's house. The situation is potentially explosive, the violence on the streets has escalated to a staggering level, and a US military presence is out of the question if the lives of the 52 hostages are to be spared. With nothing but shitty options, Mendez hatched a plan so far-fetched it sounds fictional: set up a fake movie, fly in pretending to be a Hollywood producer, fly out with the six stowaways assuming new identities as the location scouting crew of a phony science fiction blockbuster. It's a true story that lends itself easily to adaptation, and Affleck knows how to doll up declassified history to keep the audience in suspense.
As the man with the plan, Affleck is as dry and grounded as he needs to be. Because the story itself is a convoluted mash-up of what we saw, what we didn't see, and what we might never have known, there's room for the camera to bounce between elements of the narrative and to keep the action in balance with just enough development of the primary characters. Mendez isn't a slick hero, but sort of an unassuming guy who just happens to be really good at his job. Affleck knows not to glamorize him, and Argo exercises surprising amounts of restraint and faithfulness to the psychology of its source material. The six Americans are never given the chance to rise above their roles as 'parts' of Mendez's mission. They're each human, each fragile, each scared, but the film is only concerned with the telling of the story in a way that follows procedure. Connections aren't formed where there are none, relationships under duress don't magically sprout in a tender moment somewhere near the brink of failure. There's something about this realism that feels like restraint, that creates the sense that we can trust the film to show us something true. This is Argo's greatest strength, and a testament to Affleck's skills as a director. Though the film is highly stylized towards a period influence, and though its subject may be direct from Hollywood, Affleck is using the flashy elements to lure us in and then burying them in the Tehran sand. It's partially an illusion of real substance, as it can be said that Argo is conventional in any number of ways; that it's the uniqueness of the trivia that makes it any different from your dime a dozen thriller, that in some ways the what happened doesn't always make the best 'what could have happened' movie scene. That's all based on another true story, but there's certainly something to be said for the quality of the illusion. While I wouldn't call it Oscar-worthy in any of the major categories, Argo is an illusion of that brand of seasonal substance that's sharp, entertaining, and curious enough to be of note. It knows where it's going and it knows exactly how to get there without breaking a sweat.