Wag the Dog Redux
by Glenn Lovell
Imagine a collaboration between Mel Brooks and John Frankenheimer ‒ “The Producers” meets “Black Sunday” or some other geopolitical nail-biter that’s ripped, as they say, from the headlines. Sound a bit schizoid?
That’s pretty much what you get with “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s third directorial outing. It’s a strange, albeit most watchable, blend of inside Hollywood comedy and race-against-the-clock docudrama. The parts don’t always mesh, but they do often enough to assure Affleck of another one-off crowd-pleaser a la “The Town.”
The story is fact-based, of course. It’s the classified (until recently) sideshow to the 1979-1981 Iranian hostage crisis that brought down the Carter White House. While the world’s eyes were on the 52 blindfolded Americans escorted ignominiously from the U.S. Embassy by militant Ayatollah supporters, six Embassy employees scooted out the back door and took refuge in the nearby Canadian Embassy. Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA operative who specializes in “exfiltration,” is assigned the job of getting them out. After listening to the State Department’s best plan ‒ have the six bicycle Von Trapp-style across the border ‒ he calls on an old Hollywood crony, makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), and together they cook up a scheme so preposterous it can’t help but work.
“We’re a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi film.” Title of their “Star Wars” knockoff: “Argo” (as in Jason’s mythological ship). Chambers and a wily old producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) maintain a Burbank production office with a single phone ‒ just in case someone in Iranian intelligence becomes suspicious.
Affleck, obviously more involved behind the camera, leaves little impression as the hero of the piece. His Mendez comes off as harried (thanks to a manufactured estranged family subplot) and low-key to the point of being invisible. As director, he’s better at satirizing the inner workings of Hollywood than he is at juggling the various elements of the masquerade/caper. He’s certainly no John le Carré or, for that matter, Fred (“Day of the Jackal”) Zimmermann.
We get the expected, sweat-inducing delays as the Americans run the gauntlet of checkpoints, but these feel manufactured for suspense. We never doubt for a second that the six will make it out alive. I mean, why else tell this story?
Expect to hear Arkin’s name read come Oscar nomination time. Arkin has always specialized in deadpan wit, but his still-respected-but-over-the-hill producer is a master of dry sarcasm. One suspects that Arkin, who has suffered more than his share of indignities at the hands of clueless studio execs, has been saving up to play Lester Siegel, who, when introduced poolside, sniffs, “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.”
Stick around for the end credits, wherein Carter gives the movie his seal of approval. Did he read the script or screen a rough cut? According to Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio, this improbable escape came off despite the White House’s wishy-washy reaction.
ARGO ✮✮✮ With Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin. Directed by Affleck; scripted by Chris Terrio. 120 min. Rated R (for language,