Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé
Directed by Ben Affleck
Expectations: I don’t know. Not much, but the Oscar win has intrigued me.
I had a lot of problems with Argo while I was watching it, but in the end, it’s a good movie. Emphasis on “movie,” as while Argo might be based on a true story, the dramatized events in Argo stretch the limits of believability far beyond anything you’d expect in a film with its roots in actual history. The film doesn’t need a documentary approach or strict adherence to facts; I’m aware it’s a movie and I’m prepared to be entertained. But when the climax of your political thriller reminds me of the very over-the-top John Woo movie Face/Off, you know that you’ve gone too far. Argo is exciting, no doubt, but I simply cannot overlook its treatment of history.
But it’s clear that Argo and its producers know that most people don’t care. They take the story of the American embassy being stormed by angered Iranians and embellish it to the point of a simple heist thriller. There are six Americans caught in unfriendly territory, and only rogue CIA agent Ben Affleck is wily enough to get ’em out! He’s got one hell of an idea for a rescue, and it’s just crazy enough to work! Throw in fantastic small roles for John Goodman and Alan Arkin as a couple of Hollywood types, and you’ve got yourself one of the more entertaining films of 2012. Irresponsible and ridiculous, for sure, but definitely entertaining.
A lot has been said about Affleck getting snubbed by the Academy for Best Director, and Argo‘s Best Picture win definitely adds fuel to the fire. But I can see why he wouldn’t get nominated based on the quality of the filmmaking here. It’s definitely better than The Town was, but Argo is only slightly better made than a standard mainstream film, and it rarely feels like a cohesive work. The Hollywood scenes feel separate and distant from the harsh realism of the streets of Tehran. I’m sure that’s on purpose, but it feels like two different movies. Also, Ben Affleck’s camera never veers too far away from incessant close-ups; honestly, you could more easily count the shots that aren’t facial close-ups. His use of licensed songs also feels inappropriate and completely removed from any contextual meaning within the scenes. I mean, I like Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks too, but other than reminding us that this is the past, its placement in the film is worthless. Affleck made a good movie, for sure, but at least in my eyes this is quite far removed from award-winning filmmaking.
I also had a hard time feeling too sorry for the Americans stuck at the Canadian embassy. I know it’s not their fault, and that they were in a legitimately dangerous situation, but I kept thinking about the other people who were actually kidnapped that the film kind of glossed over. More distressing is the fact that the events that inspire Argo were caused by America’s direct involvement in staging the coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected leader, in order to install a Western-friendly, authoritarian leader. On top of all that, to make Argo and to fictionalize its events in this entertainment-minded manner during a time when US relations with Iran are anything but stable just seems a little too “AMERICA, FUCK YEAH!” for my tastes. I’m surprised at the nearly universal critical acclaim thrown at Argo; isn’t it the jobs of film critics to call bullshit on stuff that takes license with fact in such grand ways?
So while the film rolled on and I ruminated on these problems I had with Argo, along came the actual escape scene that the film builds towards. It’s great. It’s not really anything you haven’t seen before or couldn’t have figured out yourself, and it treats the Iranian guards as simple-minded stooges impressed more with the promise of cinematic “pew pews” than actually doing their jobs, but it’s quite entertaining. The escape was embellished to levels of pure fantasy in the film, but I was enjoying myself too much to argue with it. I had many issues with Argo, but I can’t deny its ability to entertain. This will most assuredly not be one of those Best Pictures that stands the test of time, though.