How much fabrication of a “true story” is forgivable? That’s the question I was asking myself during the pulse-pounding last half hour of the latest film from director Ben Affleck. Don’t worry, I’ll deftly avoid any spoilers. In fact, I’ll even cut short of telling you what I read subsequently about audience reaction to the film. Just know that my audience responded the same way. And that I called “bullshit” on that finale—and googling afterwards proved me correct. Too bad Affleck didn’t trust himself more because he’s a talented director that has now made three very good films. But he hasn’t given us a great film yet because he’s never quite been able to leave the Hollywood trappings behind. I guess that’s okay if you’re trying to be Ron Howard. Not so much if the attempt is the style of Sidney Lumet, or anyone of a dozen great filmmakers who helmed some classic pot-boilers in the 1970’s. This appears to be Affleck’s model—and he gets ample credit for getting so much of it correct. But many of you are maybe too young to know of the flack that Alan Parker and Oliver Stone took for their embellishments with the historical record in 1978’s Academy Award-winning “Midnight Express”. I’m old enough, though. And the fictional aspects of that story sure did piss off the country of Turkey…and understandably so. Closer to present day is the outright fantasy depicted in portions of boxer Rubin Carter’s story in Norman Jewison’s “The Hurricane” from 1999. That full-of-it screenplay probably cost Denzel Washington the Oscar that year, and was the subject of a lawsuit filed by former middleweight champion Joey Giardello. So, I believe that there is some responsibility to accuracy. Oh, you can fudge a few things. But you can certainly end up going overboard, too. Affleck did, and I’m calling him out. Even though the majority of “Argo” is pretty darn good.
The 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis has been ripe for a major motion picture representation for decades, and I’m surprised it took so long to get one done. “Argo” in its opening scenes is marvelous in reenacting the U.S. embassy takeover in Iran that eventually had American citizens tying ribbons around trees until the hostages were released(it took 444 days—and I remember making and tying at least one yellow bow myself during that conflict). This film, however, focuses on the six individuals that managed to evade capture, and proceed to hide out at the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor(played by the superb theatre performer and lately prolific film character actor, Victor Garber). With their whereabouts kept a secret during the intense and violent uprising(again, very effectively handled by Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio), the U.S. State Department teams with the Canadian government to try and hatch a plan to get the half dozen men and women out of Iran before they are discovered. A few proposals are bandied about and ultimately deemed impractical or too dangerous. Enter CIA specialist Tony Mendez(a heavily bearded and low-key Mr. Affleck). The decision is eventually hatched to have Mendez enter the country as a producer scouting locations for a sci-fi epic called “Argo”. The unburying of a script from a rejected pile of screenplays sets the idea in motion, and is deemed plausible when considering that certain blockbusters of the time(“Star Wars”, “The Planet of the Apes” series)were partially shot in desert locations. The six, after some detailed background training to fool any suspicious Iranians, will hopefully then clandestinely be flown out under the guise of being the production team for the film. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, make-up artist John Chambers(a wonderful John Goodman)and an old-school Tinseltown producer(a hilarious Alan Arkin—an obvious, but expertly utilized composite)set up the bogus behind-the-scenes workings, including a costumed screenplay read-through and write-ups in the trades.
All of this is perfect material for incorporating scenes of nail-biting suspense. And, as he proved with the heist depictions in 2010’s “The Town”, Affleck proves particularly adept at orchestrating these scenarios. Also, the acting is uniformly superb and the movie boasts a knockout roster of veterans. I did feel that the screenplay went for the “laugh line” a bit too often, some of it forgivable, some not-so-much(although the oft-repeated catchphrase involving the phoney movie’s title along with a popular profane utterance—is downright uproarious). I am reluctantly(a little bit, anyway)going to tag Mr. Affleck with my “Sofia Coppola theory”. And that is, that as much as Hollywood and certain critics like to tear down, they also like to ask for forgiveness in the form of high praise and prestigious awards. Even if those kudos are unearned. After an eviscerated high-profile role in her father’s “The Godfather, Part III” in 1990, Ms. Coppola went on to wide acclaim as a screenwriter and director. She even won the Original Screenplay Academy Award(for 2003’s “Lost in Translation”). I’ve enjoyed her films a great deal(except for the horrendously self-indulgent, “Somewhere”), but also find them to be highly overpraised. It has seemed to me for a long time that the fickle LaLa land community almost wants to shout, “we’re sorry we picked on you Sofia—pleases forgive us!” Affleck, on the other hand, captured a Best Screenplay Oscar(shared with Matt Damon)very early in his career for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting”(an award that came about seemingly based more on their youth than actual accomplishment). He then took a high level of shellacking for a series of tepid performances in some really crappy movies(“Armageddon”, “Gigli”). And now, after 3 very good films as a director, many seem to espouse he’s the new Orson Welles. He’s not. And a more subtle and exacting filmmaker would have done more with less in the last 30 minutes of “Argo”, and avoided some of Affleck’s histrionics. I have little doubt that “Argo” will be nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards come January. It might even win some biggies. But I’m going to call bullcrap when I smell it, and my B.S. detector was on overdrive during “Argo”‘s finale. But that first 90 minutes is mostly fantastic. Grade: B+