Ben Affleck has come out with a new movie called Argo (2012). Before that he did The Town (2010) and Gone Baby Gone (2007) before that. The comparison with George Clooney (a producer on Argo) is unavoidable. Though Affleck isn’t nearly the actor that Clooney is, he is very close to Clooney’s caliber in direction and yet far different in spirit. Clooney’s a character director and Affleck’s projects are geared towards plot. That is why The Ides of March (2011) failed. Everything but the plot was phenomenal then the lights came up, the audience looked at each other, and said, in one clear voice, “What the hell was that?” I predict no audience will have any such experience at a Ben Affleck movie. And I mean that as a compliment.
In 1979, after two decades of horrific dictatorship brought to power by foreign influence, the Iranian revolution succeeded in pushing out the Shah and putting Ayatollah Komeini in his place as Supreme Leader and declaring itself an Islamic Republic. Anti-US demonstrations outside the embassy in Tehran reached a breaking point when students scaled the barriers and took control of the embassy and its personnel beginning a hostage crisis that would last over a year.
However, six embassy workers–Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Cora Lijek (Clea DuVall), Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham), Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), Kelly Stafford (Kerry Bishé) and Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane)–escaped out the back of the embassy and took shelter at the Canadian ambassador’s (Victor Garber) house. They stayed there for over two months before the State Department decided to begin a exfiltration operation. Their best plan was to put them on bicycles to ride out of the country. CIA officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) was brought in to consult on the operation and he quickly opposed the plan. While talking with his son on the phone, both watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), Mendez came up with a better, though slightly crazier plan. Get Hollywood contact John Chambers (John Goodman) and director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help build a cover for the escaped embassy staff as Hollywood figures doing a location scout in Iran for a sci-fi movie.
I’d like to begin with the best part of this movie–production detail. They have recreated the times with incredible skill and attention. I found one particular moment to be exceptional. Mendez goes into Iran and the customs officer stamps his passport which still reads “Kingdom of Iran” and the officer scratches out “Kingdom” and writes in (I presume) “Islamic Republic”. There are a number of scenes or images like that. The Hollywood sign was burned (apparently) around that time, for example. They also recreate the feeling of fear and panic in both the United States and Iran incredibly well with archival news footage and recreations of street scenes. As a director, Affleck has surpassed himself. There’s a shot of Khomeini’s eyes (on one of the many enormous banners) that look through a building window.
The writing from Chris Terrio is also just incredible. They pack a lot of words into this movie and they’re said at a ferocious speed. It will take about three or four viewings for me to understand everything that’s being said and alluded to. No doubt that by viewing four I will find their directness and considerable scope to be silly and unrealistic, but what I could pick up on the first go-through was technical enough to seem genuine. There’s a lot of color in the dialogue and it brings the movie into Best Picture contention. Because, let’s face it, a spy film is going to face a major uphill battle to be mentioned in the same breath as The Master (2012) whatever their comparative quality.
What ultimately keeps the movie out of the running for Best Picture is exactly what makes Affleck a success. Populism. He makes movies he would like to watch and what he thinks other people would like to watch. But thrills go with thrillers. The final fifteen minutes of the movie is an unbelievable series of near-misses. There had to have been about five or six of them. They were such blatant tension-builders and so numerous that the movie cannot be seen in the kind of reserved, semi-indie light that typically describes Oscar nominees. Also unhelpful is the lack of deep character work.
The acting is very good. None of them, however, are great. There just isn’t the necessity. McNairy probably has the most complicated character (and he plays it superbly) but it’s clearly in support and doesn’t have the time to invest in the nuances. Jack O’Donnell played by Bryan Cranston is also very good and has moments of great tension, but again, not enough screen time to be anything other than a functionary to the plot. Affleck is the star of the movie, but his character is the straight man. He’s the calm power that moves the plot along. He does well, but this is not a deeply conflicted person. The deepest conflict is whether to do the right thing or do his job. That’s not very deep. He’s too cool to care about losing his job.
This is a movie to own, no question. Don’t let my criticisms warn you away. I only mention them to dampen the Best Picture hype. This is like All the President’s Men (1976) on meth. So, it’s good, but intoxicated. There are many films to which Argo may be favorably compared because thrills and action are what Hollywood does very well and sometimes are made by people of taste. Argo is made by people of taste.
It’s out on Blu-Ray/DVD now, so you should probably do that.