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.
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.