‘Argo’ — a must-see movie despite Ben Affleck’s one-note performance

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

The real-life events behind “Argo” are so thrilling it would be almost impossible to mess up a movie about them.

But Ben Affleck gives it the ol’ college try.

How? By mucking up director Affleck’s burgeoning career as an actor-turned director by casting Ben Affleck, the actor-turned-Bennifer-joke, in the starring role.

Still, Affleck aside, the story is so very good and the last 30 minutes so gripping — even if we already know the outcome — that you leave the theater on an adrenaline-rush high.

I can’t be certain how much Affleck fluffed the facts to give an already-compelling story an extra injection of Hollywood hot flashes, but I can’t help but point out that the movie’s length is part of its ponderousness. And much of that length is due to the director’s loving shots of his star — including several absolutely (?) necessary shots of the star’s bare chest when he — gasp — changes his shirt.

I guess we’ve not really not advanced much since the much-superior “Wag The Dog,” David Mamet’’s corrosive fictional film about a faked picture made to save a philandering President’s less-than-perky butt. In fact, we seem to have regressed.

The most important difference, of course, is that “Argo” actually (more or less) happened and it saved the collective butts of a half dozen Americans in the diplomatic corps.

Here’s basically what happened: when the American Embassy in Iran was over-run in 1979 and its staff taken hostage, six people managed to escape and take refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s house.

So far, so good. But it’s only a matter of time before the Iranian hostage-takers realize something’s up. Little kids have been recruited to literally piece together a full picture of the Americans; that is, they’ve been handed the strips from the shredding machines and are coming up with faces that aren’t among the hostages.

How does the U.S. get these folks out of Iran without endangering the other hostages or the brave Canadian ambassador who’s hiding them? Luckily, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) has an idea. And it’s a doozy.

With the help of a coupla’ Hollywood pros (Alan Arkin and John Goodman), he creates a fake movie called “Argo.” Something about space aliens in the Middle East. That means posters, costumes, ads in Variety, even a fake script reading in front of the entertainment press, who dutifully (and unwittingly) file stories about a movie that doesn’t exist.

Then, posing as a Canadian producer on a trip overseas to scout movie locations, Mendez gets into Iran. The plan is to get out with the Americans in tow, cast as the film’s director, screenwriter, cinematographer, etc.

As I said, the story is irresistible — a flag-waving bit of derring-do that you really couldn’t make up. Unless you were Tony Mendez.

But Affleck’s one-note performance leaves a black hole in the middle of the film. George Clooney, who brings a taste of rogue-ish sparkle to his leading-man roles, would’ve been a better choice (actually, Clooney co-produced). Or perhaps Affleck’s old writing partner, Matt Damon. Or a half-dozen lesser-known names.

Another problem is the quip-heavy script, especially in the Hollywood scenes. Close your eyes and you’re listening to any given TV sitcom with a mess of one-liners and a canned laugh track (not that there’s a canned laugh track in the movie; it just sounds ready for one).

Even though it’s not the picture it could’ve been, “Argo” stands to be one of the must-see movies of the year. And at this early point, it’s the hands-down leader thus far in the 2012 Oscar race.

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