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Affleck deserves thanks for top-notch thriller

By Gary Clift

The new movie “Argo” will knot viewers’ stomachs with suspense.

The movie is also better than Hollywood pictures usually are about a historic story. It is about the Iranian embassy workers who, in 1979, escaped unnoticed into the Canadian Ambassador’s house as the bulk of our representatives were being captured by revolutionaries. Some of those fifty-two hostages were held and terrorized for more than a year.

“Argo,” though, explains how the CIA managed to sneak the six hiding Americans out of reign of terror era Tehran. Some of what it suggests won’t bear lengthy consideration—how did the Iranians know pictures found in the embassy were of diplomats currently in the Islamic Republic, for example. But the film is politically even-handed and even has a spy as its hero.

The hero is Tony Mendez, and director Ben Affleck has cast himself in the part. Because Affleck is naturally likable in a gee-whiz sort of way, and because he isn’t constantly trying to express thought, he is a pretty good pick for a hero spook.

It was apparently Mendez’s idea to make up a fake Canadian movie studio (with a real producer, played by the great Alan Arkin). Carrying story-board drawings, a script (again, a real script for which the agency had to pay an option fee), and a copy of Variety with an ad for the movie in it, Mendez flew into Iran and registered with the national film board.

Then he gave dossiers describing the lives of fake Canadians to the six, who had a few hours to learn their new characters before the film board representative took them location scouting right through the main bazaar at three in the afternoon. The next day the Americans boarded Mendez’s VW micro mini bus and drove down to the airport to try to finesse their way through security and onto a Swissair plane. Would they make it?

By this point in the story, the screenplay has used all the stock but potent thriller developments. We see the Republican Guard realizing that the Canadian film people might be the American diplomats and racing through a series of obstacles to stop the plane. These ever quickening actions are intercut with what’s going on with the Americans and the jet.

The suspense is effective here, just as it is in the opening passage of the movie as we see the fifty-two hostages taken by screaming, sneering, violent, bearded ideologues with guns. This business is about as scary as the stuff in the Turkish prison from “Midnight Express.” It exists to off-set the notion (which is apparently common in some circles) that the agents of America are always wrong and their enemies, consequently, must be o.k.

Now, attentive and critical filmgoers will have some quibbles with some of director Affleck’s choices here. We may all admire Bryan Cranston, but half an hour of “Argo” is spent on his CIA administrator character’s troubles in D.C. The movie has conflict enough without this stuff. And the time could have been better spent making a little more of the personalities of Mendez and the six. As things now are, the movie really doesn’t have much in it that isn’t conflict. Even the business about Mendez’s marital separation, which is only sketched, is a suggestion of more conflict.

But it is nice to be thinking about a recent film and worrying it may have too much plot. What luxury.

For this cornucopia of event and for all that suspense, we can thank Affleck, a celebrity long reviled for having lucked into all sorts of chances to do things—big, splashy Hollywood things. Here’s an instance when he didn’t do everything the contemporary Hollywood way, and thriller fans profit from his having been contrary.

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