A few years ago, when Hollywood seemed to be churning out hand-wringing films about the Middle East by the dozen — you know, just trying to make a buck on human suffering, or change the world through Meryl Streep — I was talking with a friend about why these movies almost never succeeded, at least by the standard of getting people to go see them. All I could come up with was the usual mistakes: moralizing stories, mixed messages, Robert Redford. My friend said Hollywood just needed to figure out a way for us to win. The problem with the Middle East is that we always end up losers. Nobody wants to see that.
Hollywood was listening, or Ben Affleck was, because now we have "Argo," an action-suspense-drama-comedy thing directed by and starring Affleck, based on what's come to be called the Canadian Caper: the top-secret rescue of six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis at the end of the Carter administration. "Inspired by" is a better description, kind of like how "Rocky III" was inspired by boxing. What seems like a minor if unusual moment in history has been exaggerated into a frantic, the-world-will-end-if-Ben-Affleck-doesn't-save-these-people nail-biter, complete with extreme chase scenes involving jumbo jets and a lot of running around — at the highest levels of government and in Hollywood.
Affleck doesn't just bend the truth a little (with the help of screenwriter Chris Terrio); he completely scraps reality. And honestly, there's nothing wrong with that. A good movie is a good movie, regardless of its faithfulness to its source. Problem is, "Argo" isn't a good movie. It's a competent one, in the way many slick studio productions are competent (and predictable). But it doesn't contain an ounce of originality, and is quite confused about what it wants to say, if anything.
The film's title comes from the name of a fake movie invented by the CIA as an excuse to sneak the Americans out by posing them as a Canadian film crew scouting locations. This sends "Argo" to Hollywood, where it makes much fun of moviemaking. Half of "Argo" looks inspired by "Munich" and the other by "Get Shorty," an odd combination that doesn't measure up to either. Affleck's previous films, 2007's "Gone Baby Gone" and 2010's "The Town," also were derivative, but they were more measured, with a scale small enough to suit someone without much personal vision. "Argo" is too big for a filmmaker whose only technique is imitation.
Did you note the part about a completely phony Hollywood movie making fun of phony Hollywood? The real movie equates directors with rhesus monkeys, but a monkey might have gone for less formula and contrivance. It might have cast less obvious actors than John Goodman, who plays the CIA's go-to makeup artist, and Alan Arkin, who plays the aging producer they find to help create a fictional film. Is there any actor in the history of actors more overused as a cantankerous old coot? Not even Wilford Brimley.
Both Goodman and Arkin anchor arguably the film's silliest segment, when all will be lost if they can't make it across a closed set in the middle of filming to answer the phone. (Yes, the ringing telephone of suspense — see it here, along with the van ride through the angry mob, the bearded lady and the nervous walk through airport security.)
The ringing telephone might be the lamest example of manufactured tension, but it isn't the movie's weirdest element. That honor goes to the pre-credit sequence, which details, correctly and in documentary style, how American policies helped turn a peaceful post-colonial country into the nightmarish Iran we know today. Its inclusion is baffling because the next two hours is all about American heroism. Sorry, but it doesn't work that way. If you push your child down a well and then manage to get him out, you aren't a hero. You're a dangerous lunatic. And you don't get dispensation just because Ben Affleck is the rescuer.
A better film would have looked at this incident without the rose-colored glasses, although asking that in the entertainment-at-all-costs movie-making era, from Affleck, is a laughable suggestion. Cheering, high-fiving, back-slapping finales such as the one in "Argo" are what sell tickets and win award nominations. Whether the cheering means anything seems irrelevant. (R) 120 min. S