[Review] - Argo

Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Because of the years in between then and now, and films like Paycheck, Reindeer Games, and Daredevil, people often forget that Ben Affleck started out his career with an Academy Award for best writing. And now, after his sojourn into super stardom, he's emerged the other side ready to fulfil his original promise: as a creator. His directorial debut, The Town, was a gripping, compelling character study.

His followup, the "based on true events" Argo, is no less compelling. However, it lacks a wholeness that made The Town as full and rich as it was. Argo seems more like a very nicely decorated room, inside a model home. Everything is where it should be, but no one is every going to live there.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains no spoilers. Because these things happened thirty years ago. The spoiler time limit has expired.

The trick with any film based on a true event is, unless it is obscure, chances are you can just look up what happened. The story already exists, unless the writers take liberties. Which means the weight of a BoTE film falls on the characters. What made these people, in this situation, tick? Why did they react the way they did? What, within them, allowed them to do what they did?

Which is Argo's major failing. The film is all about telling the story of a single CIA agent, sent to try to smuggle six Americans out of Iran during the Hostage Crisis, in full view. The movie is obsessed with the story, under the guise of, the whole story was never known. Which is fine, go right ahead. But if the whole story was never known, all the more reason to find focus on the characters, to allow us to get to know the people that could accomplish this task successfully, and not mention what really happened for thirty years.

You never feel for these characters, because you never really get to know them as characters. The movie is entirely focused on Affleck's Tony Mendez, to the point where if he isn't on screen, or near by, the other characters all but cease to exist. We get a CIA briefing on the hostages, and brief moments with them once Mendez arrives, but we never spend any real time with them. We never spend any quality time with them during their first 69 days, except in a mostly silent montage. Despite two married couples in the six, we never really feel any emotional attachment between any of the hostages. I couldn't remember any of their names, real or assumed, after leaving the theatre. They were little more then caricatures. This one was shouty obstinate one, this one was weepy, this was blindly agreed with whatever Affleck said. They were empty suits; walking Macguffins for the hero to try to save. The Canadian ambassador is even further neglected, making little more then a cameo appearance, with no motivation as to why he took these in when it's explicitly stated no one else would. He just does so because he did so in real life. Which is the trap a lot of BoTE films fall into. They feel they don't need to explain why things happen, because they did, and that is enough.

The only characters beside Mendez we get any sort of real development on are the two Hollywood guys who help Mendez develop his fake movie, played by Alan Arkin and John Goodman. The presence of these two actors, who work at a level above everyone else in the film (and of course they would, look who they are) make these sequences the best of the movie, even though they feel rushed through to an extent, so that we can get to Iran. Oddly, once we get there, the movie still feels rushed, always needling the audience on to the next tense moment.

Which is the other major problem with the film: it basks in manufactured tension. Everything seems to be happening simultaneously, to be briskly edited into a heart pounding collection of fast cuts and soundtrack. A boy assembling a picture, the picture arriving at the military, the military charging a house, arriving at the airport, all the while the six are having their passports checked. The manufacturing hit my critical limit when, after boarding an airport shuttle, the driver is unable to get the vehicle into gear immediately, resulting in the camera hard zooming onto the gearshift, then Affleck's eyes, then the bus driver's, then back to the gearshift. It was enough to completely remove me from the film.

What holds it together is a very good story, but a story, no matter how good it is, will only hold itself up for so long. Like I said before, the Hollywood stuff is the better half of the movie, and clearly where Affleck was having the most fun with the film. If we had been made to care about the hostages more, perhaps that half might have seemed more worthy of our time. Despite not having actual characters to work with, the movie is blessed with a superb cast, and is filled with character actor after character actor. It's a cinephile's dream, trying to name everyone as they dart onto screen for their single scene, before we're off somewhere else, with other familiar faces.

The film ends with side by side comparisons of the actors and the real people they were playing, and I don't know what it was meant to accomplish. While I appreciated, and liked, the blending of filmed footage and archival footage at the start, and the overall way the film was shot, to mimic the style of a late seventies film, I feel like the final montage was less about the people the film was portraying, and more about the film makers wanting to look clever. "See what a good job we did, don't these guys look similar." Which backfires on them, as Affleck looks very little like the photo of the real Mendez they show. The only part of the montage that worked for me, and I feel like should have occurred a the end of the actual film, in place of the various epilogue statements, was an interview segment by Jimmy Carter, who was President at the time, talking of the accomplishments of Mendez. To include actual commentary from the actual President who oversaw the mission seems like something you shouldn't waste buried in your credits sequence.

Argo is a good movie, who which thinks it's a better movie, and is being treated like it because The Town was as good as it was. Which seems to be a trend of late, of heaping accolades onto a current work, to make up for not being rewarding enough for a previous, better effort. In an interview, Bryan Cranston likened Affleck to Clint Eastwood. And that might be fair, in time. But Eastwood's early days were rough, and he has more then a few misfires under his belt. Affleck needs to learn balance, learn patience and learn that just because you do a good job once, doesn't mean you'll do just as good a job every time afterwards.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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