By Stephanie Zacharek
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Perhaps more than any other male American star of his generation, Ben Affleck understands the narrative advantage of having Hollywood on your side. The Good Will Hunting co-screenwriter and co-star won an Oscar at age 25 in large part because he and collaborator Matt Damon, as struggling actors who created their own showcase, had the best behind-the-scenes story of the year (they also had Harvey Weinstein at the peak of his powers). Later, in his days as J. Lo arm candy and box-office poison — or so the story goes — Affleck bad-decisioned his way onto Hollywood's bad side and felt the full force of the industry's greatest weapon: its publicity machine.
Affleck's experience as both the beneficiary and target of that apparatus informs Argo, his third directorial effort. Set amid the 1979-1980 Iran hostage crisis, Argo is a "gritty" historical drama overwhelmed by its love of Hollywood as an inventor of imaginary narratives with real consequences, a great generator of American bedtime stories whose magic works on suburban kids and foreign enemies alike.
After an Iranian Revolution for Dummies prologue, in which Affleck coyly announces his intention to explore how living history is reduced to iconography by interweaving illustrated storyboards with manufactured "archival" imagery, the movie proper begins with the November 4, 1979, attack on the U.S. embassy in Tehran. While 52 Americans are held hostage, six embassy workers manage to escape, ultimately hiding out at the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Two months later, when the crisis has not blown over, the CIA and state department start plotting to bring both sets of Americans home. With the Canadian-harbored "houseguests" considered the more delicate target — the eyes of the world media are trained on the embassy, while the Iranians are initially unaware that the six Americans are in hiding — CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to review the available strategies.
Determined to smuggle the houseguests out of Iran by disguising them as a film crew on a location scout, Tony enlists the help of John Chambers (John Goodman), a movie makeup artist who has "done contract work for us in the past," and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), an old-school producer Chambers pulls off the lifetime-achievement circuit to give the "production" credibility. Between hokey wisecracks-ribbing industry idiocy, the trio seizes on a dusty, in-turnaround script for a Middle East-set Star Wars rip off called Argo, taking steps to get the trade papers to put their narrative in print.
Argo lovingly remakes a fascinating moment in Hollywood history, but as director, Affleck has made a fun, tidy entertainment that hits its beats a little too loudly and cleanly. The script is full of temporal straw men, gimmicky turns and roadblocks designed to ratchet tension at regular intervals, as well as impossible-to-miss symbolism. The first post-prologue shot is of an American flag on fire, and in the final scene, an intact specimen of the same waves behind the hero; even as the protagonists face mortal danger in between, Argo is such a beautiful rendition of Hollywood formula that a happy ending never seems in doubt. It's a movie about a triumph of narrative control that is itself too controlled.
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