argo_blog.jpg
Warner Bros.
Who has the better beard? Affleck as CIA operative in Tehran.
The Dinner : Cheeseburger, at the Mecca Cafe (526 Queen Anne Ave.

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Ben Affleck's Argo Demands Retro Cuisine

argo_blog.jpg
Warner Bros.
Who has the better beard? Affleck as CIA operative in Tehran.
The Dinner: Cheeseburger, at the Mecca Cafe (526 Queen Anne Ave. N.).

The Movie: Argo, at SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave. N.).

The Screenplate: With Roger Ebert in his corner, predicting Argo will win the Oscar next year, Ben Affleck has reason to feel good about his third movie as director. He's also the star, playing a CIA agent seeking to "exfiltrate" six Americans from Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis, but the role isn't exactly a star turn. Affleck's Tony Mendez never picks up a gun; there are no car chases; and despite Argo's "let's pretend to make a sci-fi movie" premise, the Hollywood scenes are treated for comedy, not glamor. Even Affleck's famous chin has been disguised with a wooly '70s beard. He looks less like a secret agent than a tweedy junior professor still hoping to make tenure. When he first meets the six hiding in the Canadian embassy, their reaction is emphatically, "This guy? Where's James Bond?"

A large part of the movie's appeal is that Argo and Affleck are so unassuming, which is appropriate to that time, 33 years ago. Carter is our malaise-era president, the economy sucks, we're only just past the humiliation of the Vietnam War, and now the country is near-powerless in a conflict with a strange new foe. The U.S. is, improbably, the underdog. And as Ebert and Affleck well know, everyone loves to root for the underdog, and that will be a factor in where we decide to eat.

Affleck's character is introduced in a bachelor apartment, asleep in his clothes, surrounded by ashtrays, empty booze bottles, and fast-food detritus. Mendez isn't living well, and he can't be bothered to live well. (Later we'll learn he's separated from his wife and son.) He looks like a guy you might meet in a dive bar, not in the casino with 007. And, fortunately, Seattle's best dive bar--in our 2010 reader poll--is just across the street from the Uptown: The Mecca.

Persian food is hard to find in Seattle. You're encouraged to try the Persepolis Grill in the U District, but that's too far from Lower Queen Anne. My second, more successful criterion was to find a restaurant that was in existence back in 1979, where agent Mendez might plausibly have eaten. Unfortunately, restaurants tend to turn over frequently in LQA; there aren't any real dining institutions in the neighborhood, but the Mecca is a drinking institution, where the food takes a secondary role. Like Mendez, and like his hostage rescue scheme ("The best bad idea we have," his boss calls it), the Mecca is an underwhelming joint. Fairly or not, you expect it to be bad--another underdog, in other words.

Think back, not so far back as 1979, and people similarly expected Affleck to be bad. Then came Gone Baby Gone and The Town and suddenly--with Ebert's blessing, with Argo's likely box-office success--Affleck looks to be in line for a possible second Oscar, 15 years after co-writing Good Will Hunting. It's no more implausible than Mendez posing as a Canadian film producer and partnering in the scam with two old Hollywood pros (John Goodman and Alan Arkin, both tremendously enjoyable). In fact, you could imagine those three in a booth together in the Mecca, back when people could still smoke there. And in fact, the Mecca goes considerably farther back than 1979: It was founded in 1930 and run by the same family until fairly recently. Besides the absence of cigarette smoke, the menu has also changed a little--yet without going too far upmarket. The Mecca was once famed as a place got get drunk on the cheap, but today it's more of a cheap neighborhood bar and grill. A serviceable cheeseburger and a Bud costs just over ten bucks--about the same price as a movie ticket across the street.

Like the Mecca's cheeseburger, Affleck takes a nothing-fancy approach to Argo. It starts with a mini-history lesson on Iran and the U.S. embassy siege, which the 7-year-old Affleck likely watched on TV. (Later in the movie we see all the television news anchors and a young Ted Koppel making his start on Nightline.) It's a bit of a jolt to realize that the hostage crisis really is history now, as the frightening Iranian crowd suggests the recent murderous mob in Benghazi--a parallel Affleck never could've anticipated. His film is newly topical: Here we see the limits of what Mitt Romney would posit to be U.S. strength abroad. Sending an aircraft carrier into the Red Sea would make no more difference in 1979 than today. Argo also benefits tremendously from its period details. Mendez and his CIA colleagues have no high-tech tools. Computers barely figure in the plot. There are no drones. Messages are relayed by pneumatic tubes. Mendez uses an X-acto knife to help doctor fake passports. James Bond this is not.

And the movie's most crucial, suspenseful technology is as old as cinema: the telephone. Affleck creates most of the movie's tension with the same editing strategy employed by D.W. Griffith: The threat at the door and the call for help. The storming of the embassy is a terrific sequence in part because of the frantic calls back and forth between Tehran and Washington, DC. Again, the U.S. is suddenly powerless, as its embassy employees gradually realize. The movie's next best sequence comes at the end, as Affleck and his fake film crew bluff their way the airport and endure questioning by the Revolutionary Guard. Meanwhile, back in Langley, Virginia (the headquarters of the CIA), Mendez's superiors are scrambling trying to sort out the airline tickets. Then--and I don't want to give away too much--the Revolutionary Guardsmen decide to pick up the phone. It's all so old-school, so traditional, and Affleck specifically acknowledged to Ebert his debt to Three Days of the Condor, that 1975 thriller starring Robert Redford as a CIA analyst badly out of his depth.

In her review of Argo, our Karina Longworth argues that the movie is a little too in love with movies, that Hollywood will reward it, and Affleck, for stroking that town's considerable ego. True enough. Argo isn't great, and it may be overpraised and over-rewarded. And the movie lards on a bit more sentiment--Mendez's son, marriage, etc.--than it strictly needs. It should've ended on the flight home; and that's no spoiler, because we all know exactly how this story ends--as opposed to the 444-day ordeal of the 52 hostages held by Iran. But Argo deserves its success because of Affleck's craft and the perfect timing of the movie: America is feeling down and discouraged again. We're still suffering from the recession. The Muslim world continues to bedevil us. We go to wars we can't win. The president looks weak. It feels like 1979 all over again. Then here comes a true story that shows how a little American ingenuity, plus some Hollywood bluster, can yield a happy ending. And that is why, during hard times, we go to the movies.

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