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.