Ben Affleck’s Argo: Can a Fake Movie Save Real Lives?

This fact-inspired story of an audacious caper during the Iran hostage crisis has all the makings of an Oscar winner, but that doesn't mean it's a great film

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Warner Bros. Pictures

Proof that the world cares about American movies, even nonexistent ones: the violent demonstrations in many Islamic countries beginning on Sept. 11 of this year over the Prophet Muhammad–slurring Innocence of Muslims, or rather its 14-min. YouTube trailer, a movie that virtually no one has seen at its purported feature length. The protests against the “film,” or the terrorist actions that used it as a pretext, cost more than 50 lives, including that of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

Proof that Americans don’t care much about the rest of the world: the body politic’s minor, muted response to the demonstrations and the deaths, which came less than two months before the presidential election. The only video that stirred much excitement in the U.S. that week was the stealth recording of Mitt Romney’s “47%” speech, which he gave four months earlier in Boca Raton, Fla. Getting agitated about Americans in harm’s way in a volatile Islamic nation — that’s sooo 1979.

(MORE: James Poniewozik on the Innocence of Muslims and Mitt Romney videos)

Back then, the holding of government bureaucrats at the U.S. embassy in Tehran not only stoked a 444-day diplomatic dilemma, which helped make Jimmy Carter a one-term President, but also birthed a hit TV show, first called The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage and later known as Nightline. The 52 State Department officials (all of whom were released on Jan. 20, 1981) became familiar faces through remote broadcasts from the occupied embassy, and the ABC show, hosted by Ted Koppel, turned the late-night news into a long-form, true-life suspense thriller.

Ben Affleck’s Argo, which dramatizes one aspect of the U.S. attempt to free the American hostages, benefits from some lucky, not to say creepy, similarities to recent headlines. It’s got a U.S. crisis abroad, an incendiary populace endangering American lives and a fake movie as well as one thing found in greater supply in Hollywood fiction than in current events: a hero. Premiering to critical and civilian rapture in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, Argo could follow other TIFF favorites — No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech and The Artist — and win the Oscar for Best Picture.

(MORE: The King’s Speech: Toronto and the Lust for Oscar)

Warning: This is a minority report. Last time I looked, the film had a 96% favorable rating in Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregation of reviews of the film, and the only reason the score wasn’t 100% is me. My verdict from Toronto: Argo is a solid but very ordinary thriller with patriotic and inspirational elements — which is to say that, yes, the Academy should probably save Affleck an aisle seat next Feb. 24.

(MORE: Subscribe to TIME for Mr. Serious: Profile of Ben Affleck)

The source for Chris Terrio’s screenplay is a famous event — the smuggling of six U.S. embassy employees hiding in the Canadian embassy out of Iran— 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 that was shooting in Iran. To create a plot line, characters, story boards and posters for the imaginary epic, he recruited John Chambers (John Goodman), an Oscar-winning makeup artist for Planet of the Apes, and an old-time hard-line producer (Alan Arkin) who bought a real script for the fake film, which is set on the planet Argo. The team’s code phrase for their scam: “Argo f— yourself.”

(MORE: Ben & Ben: The Tabloid Trials of Ben Affleck)

The secret agent’s plan was to go 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 was a heap of shame for the Great 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 who invents 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 and 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.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Ben Affleck’s The Town)

Any escape movie has a built-in spring with a doomsday clock ticking toward midnight as the underground heroes near their freedom while the forces of maleficent authority close in on them. Argo has plenty of that: Iranian schoolkids piecing together the shredded U.S. documents that 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 Ayatullah’s police officers 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, but it’s a feeling of unease familiar to 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 missing here. Since the Iranians were not likely to fall for the same Hollywood gag twice in 33 years, Istanbul had to stunt-double for Tehran. For visual indicators of the period, as in the ’70s-set The Iceman and The Company We Keep (two other movies that played Toronto this year), Affleck relies on dozens of ugly coiffures, including the grungy beard he wears, from what was surely the worst hair decade of the 20th century.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone)

The hometown majority in the TIFF audience lapped it all up, even though the movie essentially robs Canada of its most significant diplomatic victory in the past 60 years. One Canadian did rankle at the reduction in hero status of Ambassador Taylor, and Affleck adjusted the film’s postscript. It now reads, “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.”

Another enduring model, especially at the start of the long Oscar season, is the fact-based inspirational drama. After The Hurt Locker (American soldiers risk their lives to save Iraqis’) and The King’s Speech (a British monarch triumphs over disability and leads his nation against Hitler’s Germany), Argo may give U.S. audiences something to cheer about. No question that it expertly worked the Toronto crowd, and it will win salutes when it opens on Oct. 12.

(VIDEO: How Did Ben Affleck Go from Armageddon to Argo?)

I don’t demean those sentiments. Argo manages to summon a patriotism that is really a nostalgia for old times, when love of country could be expressed not just in the ideal but in appreciation for the cool things that people in the government accomplished. And if you believe that those days are still here, consider the reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden. The majority of Americans celebrated, while many others discounted the raid because it happened on Barack Obama’s watch.

So credit Affleck for making a real movie about a pretend one, and embodying an American hero as flinty and audacious as any silver-screen superstud. But a big idea for a film isn’t enough for a great film — and in terms of quality, Argo is just so-so.