Argo at Toronto: An Oscar for Ben Affleck?

This true-life adventure, about a CIA escape plan to free U.S. hostages from the Iranian Islamists, has all the Academy elements. It's just not a very good movie

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The first Friday of the Toronto Film Festival could be called Oscar Night. That’s when The Artist played here last year and The King’s Speech the year before, and each film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The reputation put just a smidgeon of pressure on Ben Affleck’s Argo, last evening’s film at the Roy Thomson Hall, and on the reviewers covering it. The critics did their part: many invoked the Oscar brand in their favorable notices. Affleck? Not so much. Argo is a solid but very ordinary film with patriotic and inspirational elements — which is to say that, yes, the Academy should probably save Affleck an aisle seat next Feb. 24.

(READ: Corliss on The King’s Speech and the Lust for Oscar)

The source for Chris Terrio’s screenplay is a famous event — the smuggling out of Iran of six U.S. Embassy employees hiding in the Canadian Embassy — whose truth almost nobody knew. Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) got credit for the hostages’ escape, but the real mastermind was a CIA operative named Tony Mendez (Affleck), whose daring scheme could have been hatched in Hollywood.

In fact, it was. In what later became known as the Canadian Caper, Mendez had the notion of “casting” the six Americans as crew members on a Hollywood sci-fi fantasy shooting locations in Iran. To create a plot line, characters, storyboards and posters for the imaginary epic, he recruited John Chambers (John Goodman), an Oscar-winning makeup artist for Planet of the Apes. Their code phrase for the scam: Argo f— yourself.”

(READ: Corliss on the tabloid trials of Ben Affleck)

The secret agent plan was to come to Tehran, give fake passports to the Americans, coach them in their roles as director, production designer, cinematographer, etc., take them to the airport to fly, incognito, to safety — and hope the Iranians didn’t get wise to the plot, arrest the escapees and hang them in a public square. As Mendez’s CIA superior Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) tells him, “The whole country is watching you. They just don’t know it.” And the price of failure is a heap of shame for the Great Beast Satan. “There’s no prize,” O’Donnell warns, “for Most Improved.”

The plot suggests Wag the Dog — David Mamet’s 1997 political satire about a Hollywood producer inventing a foreign war to divert attention from a Presidential scandal — but in reverse. Both movies hammer home the point that government officials, no less than moviemakers, are in the business of storytelling, fiction-making, creating lies with enough plausibility and glamour to convince the public they’re real. Argo’s twist, one nearly unique in modern U.S. films, is that the CIA fibbers are the good guys. They’re trying to save lives, not corrupt whole continents or kill their best, most principled spies.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Ben Affleck’s The Town)

Any escape movie has a built-in spring, with the Doomsday clock ticking toward midnight as the underground heroes near their freedom and the forces of maleficent authority close in on them. Argo has plenty of that: Iranian school kids piecing together the shredded U.S. documents that will reveal the identities of the Embassy refugees; crucial phone calls where the fourth, fifth or sixth unanswered ring ratchets up the tension; suspicious gazes from the Ayatollah’s policemen in Tehran and at the airport. A small advance; a major threat: that’s the dance of life and death.

Argo piles up the dread in any viewer, but it’s a feeling of unease familiar from the suspense films of Alfred Hitchcock and his myriad imitators. Affleck adds nothing new; and the acute sense of place in the director’s first two films, Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town, set in his native Boston, is necessarily missing here. Since the Iranians didn’t fall for the same Hollywood gag twice in 33 years, Istanbul stunt-doubles for Tehran. For visual indicators for the period, as in the ’70s-set The Iceman and The Company We Keep (both at the Venice Film Festival before coming to Toronto), Affleck settles for dozens of ugly coiffures from what was surely the worst hair decade of the 20th century.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Ben Affleck’s Gone, Baby, Gone)

Those in the Roy Thomson audience lapped it all up, even though the movie essentially robbed them of Canada’s most significant wartime victory of the past 60 years. They cheered when someone on screen held up a sign reading “Thank you, Canada,” and at film’s end gave Affleck and his stars a standing ovation. No question that the movie worked the crowd here, or that Americans may salute its sentiments when it opens in real theaters Oct. 12. In terms of quality, though, Argo is just so-so.

8 comments
BradJones1966
BradJones1966 like.author.displayName 1 Like

The opening of the movie was a fairy tale style narration by a friendly female voice, explaining to the audience what happened in Iran up until the revolution in 1979, using drawings from what looked like a children's book. That pretty much set the tone for the entire movie. We were not to expect any historical depth and dimension from this flick. We then get treated to the embassy being overrun. There is no security on the outer perimeters of the compound, only a chain that looks like something I use to lock my bicycle, and which is cut by a guy with a bolt cutter. We then see the head of security stepping outside 'to reason with these people', only to get caught and blindfolded within one second, and being used as a hostage in order to get the other Marines to open the door. How stupid is that ? It is beyond stupid. Filmmaking is about suspense of disbelief, but the entire opening sequence was just clearly a bunch of extras following orders from the director.

During the entire movie, the only impression we get of Iranians is that they are a bunch of raging animals. That cliche is so overused, I cannot believe any modern filmmaker is still using it. There is completely no character development in any of the hostages, or in anyone. Ben Affleck gets way too much screen time, as he does in all of his movies. He clearly thinks he is God's gift to mankind, so the audience needs to sit through endless closeups of his face, where he does either not say anything, or anything that contributes to the story.

The script feels like it is written by a 14 year old who has seen too many Die Hard movies. It is basically guys trying to outdo each other with witty oneliners. When EVERYTHING is a witty oneliner, the effect is lost.

The car chase at the airport is the absolute lowpoint of the movie. An open jeep chasing a commercial jet during takeoff means that the jeep must go at least 160mph, that is equivalent to the speed of a Formula 1 race car. That's just ridiculous. Why did they not just call the tower and tell them to stop the plane ? Makes no sense at all.

In all, the subject matter was clearly way over Ben Affleck's head. That would not be such a big deal, but the movie was also just boring. I fell asleep.


Modig_liani
Modig_liani

You know, I've disagreed with Mr. Corliss a lot in the last year.  But I think he hit the nail on the head with this.  

Silk Eotd
Silk Eotd

It's very unfortunate that this film has taken the real story and turned into something else.  Mendez (Affleck's character) spent only 1.5 days in Iran.  Sure he did the filmmaker story and got stuff ready to back that up but his role in all this was minor compared to Canadian embassy staff and government who took these Americans in and hid them at their personal residences (at great risk to themselves) for 3 months, who planned for and facilitated their escape, issued them *Canadian passports* on which to escape and who even agreed to spy for the U.S. govt. in order to help them in such a desperate situation.  But hey, I guess the 'real' heroes are the guys who sat over in the States making up a filmmaker story to use and then flying over to fly out with them even though Canadians in the midst of the crisis in Iran already had a strategy on what story to tell to get the Americans they were hiding out.  Had one of the Canadian staff not seen an error the Americans made on the paperwork and had it corrected beforehand, they wouldn't have even made it through anyways.  This type of thing now makes me doubt every bloody single American movie I've seen that purported to be base don facts!

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William Mike Funt
William Mike Funt

This have anything to do with the Iran Contra Affair.

444 days they had to be held. The hostages could have been allowed to leave much sooner, but the story is the Bush and Reagan crew made a deal to hold on till Reagan was President.   A tyrant would think he was in Paradise if he had a vegged out population like in the United States.

Silk Eotd
Silk Eotd

They screwed around with the story.  Google "the Canadian Caper" and you'll see what really happened... the CIA was only a minor player in this rescue.

Matt Islam
Matt Islam

When a movie gets the audience to cheer, it essentially has done its job. Its informed and entertained them and that in todays day and age is not a very easy feat to accomplish. I haven't seen the film but from the trailers and reactions at TIFF, I can say its pretty good. See when you expect the film to be worthy of something higher than audience praise, it is just that, not entertaining and generally bland but when the audience rejects you still find it praiseworthy art but for art to be praiseworthy, it needs praise. If films like this get sidelined by the Academy that it has done for years now, it risks disconnecting from its audience further and making the awards irrelevant. How long do you think it can last on its heritage? So a Shame would be nominated when I didn't find it as deep as say every critic on the planet (yes it had praiseworthy performances but nobody saw the movie) amp; an Argo doesn't then there is something wrong with the audience. You are talking as if the stand ovation it got at TIFF could be dismissed because you assume they got caught up in the moment but I think you are wrong. 

May be its a great movie and just because its not your brand of new entertainment of progressive movie making, you are dismissing it. In which case, you're being unfair to it and the audience that likes the film.

Silk Eotd
Silk Eotd

Unfortunately it didn't inform them of the truth.  It was the CIA who was the minor player in this rescue and the Canadian embassy staff and govt. who were the real heroes.  And the passports were not American, they were Canadian passports provided by the Canadian govt. to get them out just as it was Canadians who hid them and aided them all through the 3 months they were in hiding.  Mendez spent only 1.5 days in Iran for heaven's sake, just long enough to fly in and fly them out basically!  Ben Affleck and his team have seen fit to rewrite the story to their benefit and not give credit where it's due.  Very very disappointing to see people eating up this slop.