Argo was not a science fiction film that a Canadian film crew wanted to shoot in Iran. That is the story that the CIA concocted to help save the lives of six American embassy workers who were trapped in the country after the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis. This is the premise of Ben Affleck’s latest directorial venture and while the film is bookended by exciting set pieces, it continues his desire to explore the thriller genre in purely conventional ways without breaking new ground as he did with his debut film Gone Baby Gone.

Argo is so chock-full of movie references and moments that capture the zeitgeist of the 70’s, you could easily be forgiven for thinking it was merely some kind of homage to that era or simply, a film about filmmaking. It certainly starts off that way, when, to make his mission seem as realistic as possible, Affleck’s CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, with the blessings and funding of his employer, enlists the services of Hollywood Producer Lester Sigel (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman). Their plan is for him to go into Iran with a script, storyboards, industry publications about the forthcoming film and fake Canadian passports for the embassy workers holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Tehran. As absurd and nutty as this sounds, we are reassured this is all true, based on a declassified CIA mission, and no effort is spared by Affleck in his new found comfort position as the director in being scrupulous in his recreations.

The film is great when it is being funny and satirical. The jabs at Hollywood are appropriately amusing, but this meta view of tinseltown is marred by a rushed, superficial desire for it to serve only a limited purpose, appearing to only be necessary till the requisite government approvals come through and Mendez can hop on a plane to Istanbul for an Iranian visa. Things don’t necessary improve from here on and some questionable scenes, such as the long drawn out segment where the fictitious film crew visits the bazaar for location scouting, are rather pointless. I later learned that this never happened, and neither did the action-movie inspired climatic plane chase, and while I’m all for artistic licenses taken with history in the name of good old fashioned entertainment, it would have been pardonable had it amounted to anything. But this is what Affleck chooses to focus on with Argo – genre thrills and the proud reconstruction of the past where even the final credits show us actual moments from that time juxtaposed with how they looked on film.

In all of this, the script never manages to breathe life into any of the characters or their individual personalities, Mendez included, who is given some back-story with a broken family situation involving his wife and son which is scrappily reexamined, as a post-script, during the films very end. How it fits into the overall story remains an enigma. If I am being overly critical of Affleck and his approach, it is because his debut film, which though on the surface was a police procedural, manifested into a critical examination of human nature. He showed some of the same insight with his sophomore effort The Town, though there he got carried away in thrilling us more than exploring a moral quandary. His latest film has even less to say and works purely in a functional way; best described by generic terms – tense, political, thrilling – and little more.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

About Faizan Rashid

A veteran Dubai based film critic, Faizan has been reviewing movies for nearly a decade. His work has been published in local newspapers such as 7days and on prestigious online websites such as MSN Arabia and