by Bill Chambers Ben Affleck's films as a director are no longer surprisingly good--they're expectedly good. The surprise of his latest, Argo, is twofold: first, put a beard on Affleck and suddenly he's an actor of gravitas; second, that this directing detour his career took may have been born of not just self-preservation, but real movie love. You can see it in his hoarding of genre staples for one-scene (Adrienne Barbeau) and in some cases one-line (Michael Parks) roles, but more importantly, you can see it in the gentle Hollywood satire Argo briefly--perhaps too briefly--becomes. Set in 1979, the picture is suffused with a passion for filmmaking, if also a tinge of wistfulness for that bygone era in filmmaking. Though it may be period-authentic when Affleck shows the Hollywood sign in a state of disrepair, I think it's meant as commentary on the present. Argo is the second Warner release this year to revert to the golden-age Saul Bass logo--it fits better here.
"Argo" is the title of a sci-fi screenplay Affleck's Tony Mendez options with the help of brokedown mogul Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, playing a composite) and makeup man extraordinaire John Chambers (John Goodman, a likely Oscar nominee), of Planet of the Apes fame. Mendez is a CIA strategist who's cooked up the "best bad plan" to smuggle six refugees of the American embassy out of the country during the Iran hostage crisis: a fake location scout for a Star Wars rip-off that will supply the exiles with cover stories so arcane, they must be true. Mendez is a fish out of water in Hollywood, but not really--he's another guy with an agenda, just a peculiarly selfless one. He finds kindred spirits in Siegel, the wheeler-dealer, and Chambers, the man who puts masks on people for a living.
The movie's tonal gear-shifts from docudrama to comic drama and back again are elegant, but it's a bit of a cold shower to go from the effervescence of Goodman and Arkin's Mutt and Jeff act to scenes dominated by the Embassy Six, who are by historical definition pretty drippy company. Stuck inside the protective custody of Iran's Canadian embassy for months on end, they're more or less defined by their claustrophobia; a loaded image of them huddling into a crawlspace says enough that the endless speeches about how it sucks to be a shut-in feel doubly extraneous. Still, even they're saved as characters when they adopt their movie-industry personas and start to cohere as a traveling company. Mendez is inspired to mount a fake production while watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes over the phone with his estranged son, and Argo suggests that movies have the power to bridge these gaps between generations, colleagues, and finally, in a tense but no less moving climax, cultures. Argo is a valentine to the cinema in the very convincing drag of a political thriller; a closing title reveals that Chambers was literally declared a national hero for his work with Mendez, and it's the movie's sly mission to get us thinking of him as a figurative one as well, for all those great ape makeups. Programme: Gala Presentation