Ben Affleck has made one of the biggest turnarounds in movie history, going from a laughable actor thanks to poor roles in movies like Pearl Harbor to a bona fide A-list director thanks to efforts like The Town and Gone Baby Gone. However, both of those movies were largely ignored by the Academy, which was a crime in the latter’s case. Thanks to an expanded Best Picture roster and its “based on a true story” description, his latest, Argo, is very likely to get a nod come awards season, but the irony is that it’s his least deserving. It’s definitely a good movie, technically well-made and emotionally gripping, yet it feels so standard. It feels like they took a real life event, glossed it up with dramatics that almost certainly don’t parallel what actually happened and dropped it in theaters. Like the rest of this year’s movie line-up, this promising attempt at cinematic glory ends up a disappointment.
The movie begins in November of 1979. Unrest is taking over Iran and the people are flooding the streets in protest. Their overwhelming numbers eventually lead to an inevitability: they take over the US Embassy in Iran and hold everyone hostage, everyone except for a smart group of Americans who flee out the back. They end up taking refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s estate while things outside boil over, but what they hoped would be days turn to weeks and the weeks to months. Eventually, the US hears of the Americans who escaped and sets up an exfiltration. They employ CIA expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to get them out, so he comes up with a plan. He, with the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Hollywood hotshot Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), decides to create a fake movie under the guise of a Canadian film production company looking to shoot in Iran. Once he arrives, he gives the Americans their fake identities and begins the process of moving them out of the country. It’s a long shot, but it’s the best option they have.
Argo has a lot going for it—a terrific cast, sharp writing and a gripping true story narrative set against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis, one of the most tumultuous and nerve-wracking times in US history—and all of those strengths combine to make something worth watching. Still, its familiarity shines through. Its process of events is overdramatized like any typical Hollywood screenplay and, though still exciting, the ending is a foregone conclusion for anyone who is keen on history. Somehow, the film still manages to build excitement and tension despite those issues, which is a testament to the talent behind it, but what it lacks is verve and the raw emotion that was so present in Affleck’s two previous directorial efforts. The characters, despite their troubled situation, lack passion and never really hit one extreme or the other like they did in The Town or Gone Baby Gone. Although understandable, given that they had to keep their composure to fool the Iranians and escape the country, it strips the film of emotional weight.
The only actor who gets to flex his muscles is Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell, the CIA boss with control over the operation, but the focus isn’t on him, so his contribution is comparatively negligible. However, it’s still better to not try to hit those emotional highs than to reach for them and fail. Argo doesn’t seem so interested in making you care, perhaps because we all know the ending, and instead focuses on delivering visceral thrills and plentiful laughs (strangely enough, it often plays more like a comedy than a drama). Although it largely succeeds, the end result is a fairly conventional thriller hiding under the guise of a meaningful political one.
If anything, the film’s standout aspect is the visuals, which blends archival footage with Hollywood magic. The transition between the two is so close to perfect that it’s hardly noticeable and it gives the film some convincing visual authenticity. Aware of this, the film flashes up side-by-side photos of events and people both in real life and in the movie during the credits. The comparisons are stunning. The care that went into recreating this turbulent period in history and capturing it on camera is clearly evident; it’s the rest of the movie that needed work. It’s still a good movie and it continues Ben Affleck’s impressive filmmaking streak, but it’s too funny when it should be unsettling, too over-the-top when it should be dramatic and too routine to stand out.
Argo receives 3.5/5