Argo Review: An Oscar for Ben Affleck’s Beard

Argo is not the kind of movie that expands the artistic possibilities of what a movie can be, but it’s just about the high-water mark of what you can do with skilled craftsmanship alone. It’s clever, competent filmmaking with lovable characters and catchy dialog, the kind of movie Aaron Sorkin might make if he was just a smidge less of a smarmy prick. And obviously, Affleck’s beard is the bomb.

Argo‘s going to clean up come award season. It’s a movie’s movie, and people love a movie. It’s what they look for when they go to the movies! A true story spiked with just the right amount of bullshit. Characters don’t talk the way real people talk, they talk the way we wish they would talk, an Affleck hallmark going all the way back to Good Will Hunting (“I figyah, why nawt just shoot my buddy, take his jawb, hike up gas prices, bawmb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Gaahd?”). It plays on our deep-seated desire for staircase wit, to see someone be as witty in the heat of the moment as we would be only when lying to our friends about it afterwards – I’m tellin’ ya, Tawmmy, you shoulda seen it, I gave that hahd on what fa! It’s not quite truth, but it’s catharsis, and Ben Affleck (the director) always delivers that solid B+ – a little hokey, sure, but a well-crafted collection of actors we love to watch, ballsily chewing scenes of Americans at our best, the way we like to think of ourselves, golden retrievers and apple pie go sawx and whatnot. It’s even probably a little better than The Town, because in Argo, even the stagiest lines are still cheeky and fun, without expository clunkers like “My brothah died on a day like this…”

The story is based on a 2007 Wired article by Josh Bearman, How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran. With that kind of title it could be about practically anything, but it’s actually centered around five US embassy workers in Iran who were working in the visa office – the only embassy building with access to the street – when protesters stormed the embassy grounds in 1979, shouting their usual slogans, “allahu akbar,” “death to America,” “A-Rod sucks,” etc. While the rest of the embassy staff was being taken captive, the five (who met up with a sixth outside the gates with the help of a transistor radio) escaped onto the streets, dodging the komiteh and the revolutionary guards, with their penchant for firing squads. They went to a few embassies and hid in their apartments for a time, before eventually being taken in by the Canadian ambassador. And there they stayed, houseguests for nine weeks before anyone in the government realized they needed to get out. The state department tossed around various hare-brained schemes before they brought in CIA exfiltration specialist Antonio “Tony” Mendez (portrayed in Argo by Ben Affleck’s beard). Mendez’s plan, and this is a quiz to see how closely you’ve been paying attention, involved a fake sci-fi film. SPOILER ALERT: It worked.

It’s a short, fast read, with a chronological, heist-type structure that’s both logical and effective. The main challenge in turning it into a film is adding the drama (*jazz hands*) and maintaining the proper pacing (and of course beard grooming). Affleck and his screenwriter, Chris Terrio wisely decide to gloss over a bit of the real-life drama in the beginning (getting from the embassy to the ambassador’s house, connecting with the sixth guy) so that the movie can build to a crescendo at just the right moment, when they finally put the film-crew cover into action and try to get on a plane before the Iranians figure out who they are and catch them. They gild the lily a bit in the climax (okay, they gild the lily a lot, with a runway sequence that’s borderline preposterous and an unnecessary reunion between Mendez and his wife), but the editing alone is Oscar-worthy, with cinematography that’s pretty top-notch too. Especially the way it captures the velvety lushness of Affleck’s beard.

Oh, and did I mention the who’s who of crusty, glib-talkin’ old smartasses? Bryan Cranston plays Affleck’s CIA boss; John Goodman and Alan Arkin the two old Hollywood guys who help Mendez make his fake movie seem legit. Oh God, it’s like a salty old bullshitter home run derby, each retort more sarcastic and vulgar than the last. “You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try dealin with the WGA!” “Kid, that script ain’t worth sh*t on a buffalo nickel.” “Dealin’ with these two is like talkin’ to those two old f*cks on the Muppets.”

It’s dad humor at its best, the world’s best character actors practically tap-dancing offstage after every line. Imagine Charlie Wilson’s War, but with three Philip Seymour Hoffmans. But where Charlie Wilson’s War felt like a queasy, weirdly-timed glorification of ultimately ill-fated American interventionism at times, Argo does a nice job setting up the political stakes. It would’ve been easy to paint the Iranians as evil, blood-thirsty psychopaths, but it nicely offers a history at the beginning to explain why they were rightly pissed, which does nothing to diminish why the Americans were rightly scared sh*tless of them at the time.

It does seem a little un-PC that a guy named “Ben Affleck” is playing a guy named “Antonio Mendez” (hey Ben, you can cast someone else, you know…), but that would probably lead into an equally un-PC discussion of just how Latin a Latino Tony Mendez is. Instead, I’ll simply compliment Affleck on yet anothah sawlid directawrial effit, and a beyahd fa superiah ta A-Rawd’s.