What you feel in the opening 20 minutes is a kind of “Battle of Algiers”-style docudrama that meets up with political events that have happened as recently as last month with the sieges and protests at American embassies around the Muslim world. These scenes feel fresh and tense and raw. Affleck keeps everything happening and makes you feel that anything could happen. I imagine no studio would back a whole movie of this. Chris Terrio wrote the script, which really doesn’t kick in until after these scenes. The caper it conjures might feature unthinkable political risk, but as moviemaking it’s safe. We’ve seen “so crazy it just might work” before. Affleck makes it entertaining. You understand why we’re getting the caper story — it’s exciting! It’s fun! It’s declassified! Yet the early scenes are where you feel Affleck pushing against his comfort.
As an actor, he’s torn, too. The comic-book jawline is Affleck’s, but covering it with Mendez’s hair advertises an aversion to vanity. You sense that Affleck is acting in his movies lest he forget how to do it. He spent so many years being pilloried in the press that I think he’s afraid of not being liked at the movies. He now takes his likability even more seriously than Robert Redford, the only other actor on earth who would cast himself as a bullying, bank-robbing thug who evolves into the male half of a Nora Ephron movie. That’s what Affleck did in “The Town.” Even with his charisma dialed all the way down, as it is here, he’s still a movie star. I just wish he would stop being sorry about it.
As a director, Pollack and Pakula are pretty much where Affleck is as a director: a smart, talented classicist who’s good with actors and the rhythms of storytelling; someone who makes Hollywood entertainment look criminally easy. He’s more the 21st-century version of those two than the second coming of Beatty or Redford. I don’t know that Affleck would want to do something like Pakula’s “Klute,” “All the President’s Men,” or “The Parallax View”; or Pollack’s “Tootsie” or, heaven help us, “Out of Africa.” But he’s barely 40. There’s time. “Argo” suggests that, in the future, he might have something more currently topical to say, the way Pakula did. My only problem with the movie is that, after those opening scenes, it loses its nerve. Despite all the suspense the movie generates and how much fun it is to watch and listen to, it’s safer than something about the Iranian hostage crisis should be. For now, he’s Pakula without the paranoia.