A lot of what has (deservedly) pleased both critics and audiences in Argo, Ben Affleck's third directorial outing, is its elegant layering of unashamed Hollywood hokum, American history and cultural meta-references. This true story of an actual CIA operation that seemed out of - and actually was - a Hollywood script, at the same time outrageous and incisive in its assumption of American filmmaking's global reach and popularity, is also proof that Mr. Affleck has a lot more in his mind than his often stereotypical roles suggest and that he is aging into a fine film director in his own right, even if still a rather generic one.

     Which is not to say Argo, telling of the risky 1980 operation to bring home six staff who escaped the American embassy seizure in Teheran by passing them as a Canadian film crew searching for locations in Iran, is a perfect film. That screenwriter Chris Terrio has obviously tampered (particularly in the final act) with a tale that hardly needed tampering with is actually the least of its problems. Mr. Affleck disappointingly allows his surefire genre instincts (well displayed in his previous thriller The Town) to take precedence over what the actual human heart of the story and lets the initial shifting between different narrative levels and general tones disappear under a thick slab of by-the-books heroics.

     During its first two acts, Argo crosscuts niftily between three levels: first, the political thriller set at the CIA headquarters and government halls where overcautious bureaucrats deal with the hostage and escapees situations and CIA agent Tony Mendez (Mr. Affleck, self-effacing but still somewhat sleepwalking) is tasked with having "the best bad idea" to get the Teheran six out. Another is a smart mix of satire and heist movie, taking in the Hollywood backlots where Mendez sets up the "con" with the help of make-up artist John Chambers and producer Lester Spiegel (the superbly electric pairing of John Goodman and Alan Arkin). Finally, there's an ensemble drama back in Teheran, where the six embassy staff, taken in by the Canadian ambassador, live shuttered and waiting for word on how to escape their predicament, leading into the actual espionage mission, updated straight from a WWII movie.

     Balancing genre smarts, solid acting and a measure of suspense, Argo works a treat for most of its length. But then the final, unbearably drawn out act comes in, artificially extended for no good reason other than giving the tale a proper "movie" send-off in keeping with the "truth is stranger than fiction" motto. And yet, that breathlessly overextended surrender to cheap if classic manipulation pushes the limits of plausibility and disrupts the film's finely-tuned elegance, solid craftsmanship and confident ensemble playing - leaving Argo as a good movie that never quite fulfills the greatness it promises.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina

Director: Mr. Affleck
Screenplay: Chris Terrio, from the Wired magazine article Escape from Tehran by Joshuah Bearman and the book Master of Disguise by Antonio Mendez
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto (colour, processing by Deluxe, widescreen)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Sharon Seymour
Costumes: Jacqueline West
Editor: William Goldenberg
Producers: Grant Heslov, Mr. Affleck, George Clooney (Warner Bros. Pictures, GK Films, Smokehouse Pictures)
USA, 2012, 120 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), October 31st 2012 


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