It’s time for round 2 of “dumping on surefire Oscar contenders.” After my lukewarm response to David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, I decided it was time to write about a film from another director I like, Ben Affleck’s Argo.

Affleck’s first effort, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone was one of my favorite films of that year. It was the second notable performance by Casey Affleck that year (the first being his amazing turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and it’s a film that I’m always fond to revisit. 2010’s The Town was also a film I enjoyed, though not as much as Gone Baby Gone. I don’t know if it was the story, or if I felt Affleck was being a bit indulgent in casting himself as the lead, but it didn’t draw me in quite as much as the earlier film.

With Argo, Affleck has again cast himself in the lead role, but in a film where the most important aspect is the story. Argo is a period piece set in 1979/1980 during the Iran hostage crisis. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA specialist who is tasked with trying to rescue six employees from the American embassy in Tehran who were able to escape and are hiding out in the Canadian embassy. With the help of Hollywood makeup artist and some-time CIA collaborator John Chambers (John Goodman) and film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) he concocts a far-fetched extraction plan. The trio begins pre-production on a sci-fi movie called Argo, a fake film that will potentially shoot in Iran. Using Argo as a cover, the 6 embassy refugees will be able to escape by posing as part of the film crew visiting Iran on a location scout. Mendez himself will act as the shepherd to the group of 6, first getting into Iran and then getting all of them out safely.

The performances in the film are all very good, but not distracting or showy. There’s been some mention about Affleck’s Tony Mendez being bland or boring. Personally, I love that he’s not an action hero. It adds a level of reality to this (based on a true) story about the nuts and bolts of getting people out of a bad situation. Goodman and Arkin get most of the funny and memorable lines in the film, but I was surprised how little they were actually featured in a film where they among the top 4 performers billed (along with Affleck and Bryan Cranston as Affleck’s CIA superior). The two are great character actors who refrain from chewing the scenery and simply deliver solid supporting performances. The film is also filled with “that guy” actors, people you have seen everywhere before, but who you might not be able to name. The list includes Kyle Chandler, Victor Garber, Chris Messina, Željko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, and Richard Kind. Also, props to Affleck and the casting directors for avoiding the temptation to get bigger, more recognizable actors to play the 6 embassy escapees. Sure, you may have seen these people before, but I only knew Clea DuVall (from Identity) and Kerry Bishé (from Scrubs and Red State).

I mentioned above that the story is the main focus of this film, and that’s probably what I like most about it. Argo is fairly straightforward history lesson about an unorthodox and unique operation that I had never heard about (and I’m assuming a lot of viewers, or at least people who weren’t around during the crisis, hadn’t heard about either). The film doesn’t get bogged down with extraneous plots, action scenes, love triangles, twists or shocking elements, probably because none of that existed in the actual historical record. It’s just an interesting story, well told.

Here is where my biggest nitpick with Argo comes in. Yes, this is an interesting slice of history, but I get a sense that Affleck didn’t think it was quite interesting enough. I must admit that I haven’t researched the actual events, so I could be completely wrong about what I write next. The final act of the film, the escape attempt, is filled with manufactured tension that isn’t in line with the rest of the story and makes it feel just a bit too “Hollywood” for my taste. Certainly, a “Hollywood” ending is in keeping with the film being about a fake movie, but the sheer number of problems the group runs into was a bit much. Affleck (and/or perhaps screenwriter Chris Terrio) stacks snag after snag on top of difficulty, close call and obstacle. By the time Goodman and Arkin were being held up by a film shoot, unable to reach their office where, unbeknownst to them, at that exact time the most important phone call of the whole operation was coming in from halfway around the world, I had to shake my head.

It doesn’t kill the movie entirely, as we’re still rooting for Affleck to succeed and these people to get out, but unfortunately, it’s still a mark against an otherwise very good movie, in my opinion. This last act letdown is unfortunate, because the film has already given us a good example of real tension that springs organically from the situation. Once Affleck arrives, the 6 are forced to go on an actual location scouting trip through the heart of Tehran, after having less than two days to learn their cover identities. There are some real moments of suspense during the scouting trip, and honestly, I wouldn’t have minded if Affleck had milked this sequence a little more, rather than back-loading all of the tension into the escape. A side story about one of the escapees not trusting Affleck to get them out also doesn’t work for me, as it’s a development that we know the resolution to as soon as it begins. Perhaps if we had spent a little bit more time with the escapees (another slight knock against the film) it wouldn’t have seemed so unnecessary. Another side story involving the housekeeper at the Canadian embassy being a potential threat to the operation is a bit more interesting, but ultimately, it isn’t developed enough to make me care a lot about it, though I liked that it was included.

The real group of six meeting with President Carter. – White House Photo via:

I have to say that I began this response prepared to criticize Argo more harshly, but the more I reflect on and write about it, the more I find that I liked the film. Overall, I liked Argo quite a lot. The care taken with the film’s 1979/1980 look and feel, emphasized by the historic photographs shown during the credits, makes evident the love these filmmakers have for history; a love shared by yours truly. It’s no surprise that the film is co-produced by George Clooney and his frequent collaborator Grant Heslov who brought us period-piece/television industry films Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck. (as well as Leatherheads, a semi-successful love letter to the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges). That said, I understand that any dramatic film adaptation of a “true story” needs to be embellished and condensed, and perhaps requires an increase in the level of conflict in order to sell the film to a studio and/or an audience. Still, Argo does so well at playing things low-key that I don’t think it needed to lean on the crutch of contrived suspense in its climax.

I’m glad that Argo is getting a good bit of awards buzz for Terrio, Arkin, Affleck and the film itself. Compared to everything else I’ve seen this year, which isn’t all that much as far as awards contenders are concerned, the film is probably near the top of the list. Still, as much as I like Argo, and Affleck as a director, I’m not convinced it’s a winner in all categories.

5 thoughts on “Argo

  1. Hey Jeff,
    I thought this entry was really well written and I liked that you took an offensive approach at addressing some of the most popular criticisms of the film. Personally I’m on the side of not liking Affleck as the main role. The biggest thing for me, which is something I don’t think you touched on, was that he is portraying a very brave Mexican American. This casting choice for me puts this film in the category of “Hollywood” and not historical. Hollywood loves to make the hero a nice white guy even if it doesn’t really make sense, (see “The Help” “Glory” “The Last Samurai” “The Flowers of War”etc…) For me Affleck took an interesting story and made it Hollywood. Are there really no Mexican American actors who could have played someone as “being bland or boring.” While on that note, I agree that it was refreshing that Affleck’s character is not trying to be “an action hero” but he could of at least had a different expression on his face when his character should have been angry, sad, excited, relieved, or even amused. His face for me always had the same stoic expression whether he was interacting with a guard with a gun under a very stressful situation or with his own son over dinner. Affleck’s acting aside, I also enjoyed this film although I’m sure it won’t break my top ten list for the year.

    • Nick,
      Thank you for your comments. I must admit that I’m guilty of not even considering the Mendez/Affleck ethnic disconnect, so I’m especially glad that you brought it up. I think you already explained why I didn’t mention it (and why I don’t think very many others are talking about it): This is a commercial Hollywood film and the best way to make money is to get a bankable star above the title. Any Mexican-American actor, no matter how talented or well-known, is probably not going to draw as many people as Affleck. Still, I truly believe there would have been a way to cast the role with someone ethnically/historically accurate and market this film properly and successfully, especially considering the supporting cast and Affleck’s rising pedigree as a director. I would hesitate to lump Argo in with The Help and The Last Samurai as I think it is a much better film. Also, I don’t think that Argo is trying (whether consciously or unconsciously) to “whitewash” history. It doesn’t provide us with a benevolent white man to lead the backward or underprivileged non-white “others” into some new understanding or enlightenment.

      That said, there is still the fact that Affleck took the success of a Mexican-American historical figure and gave it to a white man (playing a Mexican-American). I think there are a couple of different ways to look at this. First, the choice seems particularly unfortunate given the low-key nature of the character. It might be hyperbolic, but one could say that anyone could’ve played Mendez the way Affleck did. At the same time, does making the character so bland diminish his actions, whether in the film or historically?

      Second, Affleck may have been playing it “flat” for any number of reasons, including directing attention away from his character. I wouldn’t suggest it was to try to mask the fact that Affleck isn’t Mexican-American, but maybe he was trying to get out of the way of the story he was telling. I can’t speculate as to Affleck’s motives for casting himself.

      Finally, a bit about Hollywood vs. History. I agree with you that this movie is very much “Hollywood.” Hollywood has been fooling (or trying to fool) us since the beginning, offering us far-off locations and fantastic characters that are all just white guys in makeup in Los Angeles, or nowadays, CGI figures in a computer. Our acceptance is sort of a contract we sign by walking into a theater. “Historical” films give themselves an added burden of trying (or at least appearing) to stay true to actual events. Historical inaccuracies abound, not just in this film, but in every film actually “based on a true story.” It’s probably not worthwhile to argue over whether a film can really be “historical,” whether a film can be both Hollywood and historical, or whether, indeed, Argo is historical. Still, I believe that Affleck and Co. have at least some genuine affection for history and a degree of reverence or respect for the actual historical event (Mendez casting aside).

      I think it’s great that Affleck decided to make a film about a real event that I was completely unfamiliar with. As noted in my post, my major issues with the film involve Affleck’s decision to push the tension into the realm of implausibility. That’s not so much a nitpick about historical accuracy, as it is about the film pushing the bounds of the reality it has asked us to accept. Despite my problems with the film, I feel like Argo could have strayed much farther from believability than it does. It’s by no means an historic document of the events it portrays, but it’s an entertaining dramatization of an historical event that might just get people interested in the true story of Tony Mendez and the Canadian Caper.

  2. Pingback: Pre-Oscars: 2012 | slazenger1

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