Director Ben Affleck made one critical mistake in the otherwise superlative new political thriller "Argo."
Affleck didn't fight hard enough to secure a different leading man.
Ben Affleck, the maligned movie star, simply isn't worth headlining a movie of this caliber.
"Argo" tells the fascinating, too true to be fiction account of how the CIA rescued six Americans from becoming part of the Iranian hostage crisis, the nightmare that helped end President Jimmy Carter's chances at a second term.
Yes, Affleck nimbly resurrected his Hollywood career by stepping behind the camera for "Gone Baby Gone." Now, his third directorial effort shows he's a major talent behind the scenes, but his flat, albeit handsome mug simply isn't deserving of such a high profile gig.
Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent skilled in extricating people out of tight spots. He's called in to help six Americans trapped in Iran following the 1979 hostage taking. They're hiding out in the home of a Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber, "Alias"), but they won't be safe there for long.
So, Tony concocts a covert operation to get the hostages out. He'll pretend they're scouting locations for a new science fiction film called "Argo," and they're trying to see if Iranian vistas will work within the story's context.
Tony enlists the help of a real movie producer (Alan Arkin) and makeup maestro (John Goodman), and even places fake stories in Variety and across Hollywood to give the plan cover.
It's so crazy a scheme it just might work, plus it lets the smart screenplay tweak Hollywood in ways most movie goers will applaud.
Affleck stages how Iranian protesters overran the U.S. embassy in the film's taut opening sequence, expertly employing shaky cam moments as well as more conventional footage. From there, the story takes alternately serious and comic turns, the latter courtesy of Arkin and Goodman, all the while reminding us that lives hang in the balance.
The late 1970s fashions and setting are impeccably recreated, down to the hirsute stylings of the six Americans in harm's way.
"Argo" establishes a critically high level of tension from the opening bell, and Affleck and crew make sure to keep that sensation alive through the final, gripping sequences. We see bodies hung in the streets of Iran, watch Iranian children scouring through shredded material to find the identities of the six missing Americans and take in how Iranian agents will stop at nothing to snare new hostages.
Affleck can't resist a few anti-American swipes early on, from an Iranian history lesson that hardly favors the West to dialogue snippets blaming the hostage crisis on America giving the deposed Shah of Iran asylum.
The film hardly does the Carter administration any favors in retelling the worst chapter in its fumbling four years in such evocative fashion.
"Carter's shitting enough bricks to build a pyramid," one character says about the hostage crisis.
In fact, "Argo" may also inadvertently malign the current administration. Once more, the Middle East is on fire, an inept White House is inadvertently fanning the flames with appeasement-style policies and "Death to America" chants are heard across the region.
"Argo" deserves consideration in the upcoming Oscar season chatter, but the movie may also serve as a sly weapon for the Romney/Ryan ticket.