It's an important movie because the incident that began this whole Middle East muddle in which we now find ourselves -- let's think of it as the index incident -- is fast disappearing down the memory hole. The Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Teheran in 1979 is as remote from younger Iranis as the Vietnam war is to our college students. It's something they read about in history books. The mutual enmity has become functionally autonomous; it's an ongoing thing and now feels as if it's always been there.
So it's important if only for its educational value. It's also a suspenseful story in itself. While the enraged Iranis storm the American embassy and occupy it, six of the staff escape out the back door and are finally given safe quarters in the house of the Canadian ambassador, while the rest of the staff are not so lucky. No one has any idea of what will happen to the six escapees. They could be caught and murdered momentarily. And they have no way of getting out of the country.
Enter Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, intrepid agent of the CIA, whose book this screenplay is based on, alas. I hope no one expects a personal memoir by a CIA hero to reflect any characterological weaknesses such as self doubt or vanity or hesitancy or fear. Affleck is grimly determined throughout, despite the company's attempts to shut the operation down. "I will get you out. That's what I do," he tells his terrified wards repeatedly. The outrageous plan is to give the six Americans new identities as location scouts for a film company.
The script, and Affleck's performance, turns Mendez into a cipher. He seems to have only one trait -- that obsession to get them out. But then the script doesn't give any of the six hostages any personality either. They each have one trait, if that many, and are otherwise impossible to distinguish from one another. Well, that's not entirely true, because you can tell the men from the women.
The story itself is intrinsically strong. The problems of getting a new identity and fooling the house-to-house Irani searchers at the airport, are spelled out in a jumbled kind of way. But Affleck, the director, and his cameraman seem to have caught some sort of palsy that has been endemic in Hollywood for the last decade or more.
The hand-held camera is hardly ever still. The cuts come quickly, one upon the other. There are swish pans, wobbles, innumerable close ups of static faces where there need be no close ups at all. That's during the contemplative periods. During the action scenes, forget it -- a kaleidoscope of flashing images. As a result, the movie has taken on some of the visual qualities of a rock video, or a TV commercial for pimple cream, exercycles, or SUVs with Ma Deuces on top. ZOOM, BANG, Ooops, pardon me! The stylistic quirks juice up a story that needs no more juice than it already has. A suspense thriller doesn't need to convince us that it's supposed to be thrilling. I mean, cf., "All The President's Men", and count the close ups and wobbles.
But the directorial and editing style may just be trying to keep pace with the headlong layout of exposition. A brief but very valuable and dispassionate historical introduction is quickly tossed aside in favor of in favor of shots in which some Suit rushes into an office somewhere, grabs a phone and shouts, "WHAT? They can't DO that!" And I couldn't tell who "they" were or what they weren't supposed to do.
Except for Affleck's robotic honcho, the performances are okay, and some are better than that. Thank God for Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who inject a necessary dose of humor and cynicism into the movie. Even without them, the movie would have been better than the average junk pouring out of the studios, if only because of its political and historical significance. Yet, I'm getting awfully tired of being yanked by the ear from one place to another. Why don't "they" take a breather and watch "Lawrence of Arabia" again?
Action / Adventure / Biography / Drama / History / Thriller
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2 hr 0 min