Seventies flashback

“Argo” doesn’t quite live up to expectations set by previous critics. Ben Affleck’s third directorial effort twists a “based on a true story” face into a Hollywood satire and 1970s love letter. Regrettably, “Argo” struggles to focus on either of these two themes; instead we get a mixture of the two that doesn’t feel fully cooked.

“Argo” tells the story of six Americans who have to seek shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador when the Iranian revolution breaks. From that point audiences are introduced to Tony Mendez, a CIA technical operations officer, who is tasked with getting these American citizens out of Iran. Mendez creates an outlandish, almost unbelievable plan involving a Hollywood science fiction film and two colorful characters played by Alan Arkin and John Goodman.

Surprisingly, I was far more interested in the CIA’s point of view than that of the filmmakers. The Hollywood subplot brought “Argo” to a halt. The CIA scenes kept the film moving like a train bursting through the Hollywood schlock. Surprisingly, the Hollywood scenes were not as funny as I had anticipated, and not enough of their story was fleshed out for me to appreciate it.

Goodman and Arkin are said to be the stand-out performers in this film, but I think Bryan Cranston playing CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnel and Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford, one of the Americans in hiding, really steal the screen.

The two actors bring the much-needed drama that is nearly stolen from the audience by Affleck himself. Affleck is a bump on a log nearly the whole film until he’s quizzing the Americans who he attempts to rescue on their new identities. Critics have said that perhaps Affleck shouldn’t have cast himself in this role and focused on directing. I’m inclined to agree, because Affleck’s performance was definitely a negative piece of this story’s puzzle.

Affleck does succeed, however, in his direction and attention to detail. Affleck has said he modeled many of his scenes after great ’70s films including “All the President’s Men.” This influence is obvious during the scenes in the CIA headquarters, but his ’70s influence is lost when he trades real drama for today’s forced Hollywood drama. Affleck is obviously a big fan of Alan J. Pakula, director of “All the President’s Men,” and Sidney Lumet, director of two of my favorites: “Network” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” Unfortunately, Affleck’s love letter to these directors and others has a few errors and lacks substance until the end.

The final act of “Argo” is, simply put, one of the most nail-biting finales I’ve seen in a film. I couldn’t believe all the close calls and intensity the Americans had to endure when they were trying to finally return home to America. Little did I know my questions of reality were not speculative. The truth has recently come out, but I’ll leave it to you to check the facts or appreciate this film, strictly “based on” a true story.

Patrick White

Movie fan Patrick White doesn't spare anyone's feelings when deciding if the latest Hollywood offering is trash or treasure. Catch his reviews on the latest theater and DVD releases in Saturday's paper.

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