(Ben Affleck, 2012)
Though it tries very hard to feel like a film from the era in which it is set - the end of the 1970s and dawn of the '80s - there is in fact something awfully 1990s about Ben Affleck's Argo. It is so careful and earnest in its attempts to be an adult entertainment - not too funny, not too political, not too talky, just exciting enough - that it instead feels slightly drab at times, despite its outlandish "true" story.
That story traces the attempts of CIA extraction specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck, sporting a true-to-period beard and semi-mullet which always look just a tad too styled) to smuggle six US embassy staff out of Tehran following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. His plan involves the creation of a fake movie project - the sci-fi epic Argo - which has a script, storyboards, production company and a couple of cynical Hollywood old-timers (Alan Arkin and John Goodman, sharing all the films best lines between them). Argo is to shoot in Iran and Mendez means to smuggle the embassy workers out as part of his film crew, the story being that they have been scouting locations in the country.
The action is split between intense conversations amongst groups of suited men in rooms, most with fringes and sideburns, arguing and blustering over their plans; and scenes of angry Iranians in the streets of Tehran. The Iranians we see here are generally granted no individuality, rather they are a shouty, scary mob, or intensely focused anti-American zealots, and Affleck shoots the Tehran scenes differently than those set in the USA. In Tehran the camera is jittery and handheld, the film grainier. The sequences in Langley and Washington are slightly smoother - the camera circles and roves insistently but without that same nervous energy, the more measured cutting amplifying this to an extent.
But then there are few real characters here. Affleck's Mendez has no personality, instead being fitted out with a series of gestures in the direction of one; he is separated from his wife and son, he drinks too much, he seems somewhat mournful. With other figures he has avoided the impression of shallow characterisation through casting - his actors are largely superb, and the likes of Bryan Cranston and Scoot McNairy give these people more meat than the script perhaps allowed for their bones.
That script is filled with great lines and snappy exchanges and Affleck keeps the whole thing pacy, particularly in the difficult expository sections of the first act. It is atmospheric too, with a nicely textured sense of that world, filled with cigarette smoke and creaking leather.
By the last act much of this has ceased to matter. By then the escape attempt has begun, and it is unbearably, giddily gripping and suspenseful. Affleck may lack a distinctive style or voice, but he is a fine craftsman, and his handling of suspense here is textbook stuff which works brilliantly in its every predictable, triumphant beat, twist and reversal.
This may be his most roundly entertaining and accessible film yet, but for me it is also his worst. The understanding of Boston so evident in Gone Baby Gone and The Town is here replaced by a touristic awe at Tehran, the relatively intense character studies of those films replaced by a more functional approach to characterisation. That this is still a soundly entertaining film is tribute to the skill of Affleck as a director, his excellent ensemble, and to Chris Terrio's script. While the actor-director has been (inaccurately) compared to Sidney Lumet on the basis of this film, a more telling comparison would be with Sydney Pollack, who also specialised in high-class middlebrow entertainments aimed solidly at grown-ups. Pollack turned out more than his fair share of classics over the years and I can see Affleck doing the same, if he continues to pick his projects wisely...