After he and co-star Matt Damon won Best Screenplay Oscars for Good Will Hunting (1997) Ben Affleck buried himself for the better part of a decade trying to be a star with films like Armageddon (1988), Daredevil (2003), Pearl Harbor (2001) (his better films), and Gigli (2003), Jersey Girl (2004), and Phantoms (1998) (his less than better films). He directed his brother Casey Affleck in the Boston crime drama Gone Baby Gone in 2007 without much fanfare. But it was as if Affleck went back to school, studied film, or studied the part of what it was inside him that helped create Good Will Hunting, and returned anew with The Town (2010), realizing too, that like George Clooney, he could be both director and star. A very smart move because The Town hit the trifecta with the Boston tales Affleck has been trying to author—gritty, violent films filled with characters, not unlike Affleck the filmmaker, who see strong enough potential in themselves to make life-changing decisions for the better. I’m almost disappointed Argo’s main character, a CIA agent played by Affleck determined to save six Americans from being taken hostage in Iran, doesn’t have a Boston accent. But that would ruin the integrity of this very true, historical, Hollywood story.
The Story: It’s 1979 and protesters in Iran storm the U.S. Embassy and take hostages. Six Americans manage to escape and take refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. What quickly becomes a hostage situation being witnessed by a new global audience the CIA and State Department decide to go with The Hollywood Option—a plan devised by real-life agent Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, to create a fake movie whose science fiction locations require the exoticism of the Iranian geography. Thus the need for six passports for the six Americans who are scouting Iran—wink, wink—for their Hollywood movie.
The Goods: Argo is based on the real life experiences of Tony Mendez as outlined in his book The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA. You can tell Affleck goes to great links to get the details right. And if you stick around for the end credits you’ll see just how accurate he is with side by side comparisons between the real photos and newsreel film and the reproductions of each. Even the casting is down to a detailed science that nearly suggests a nerdiness in replication that is as rich as the science-fiction tale the fake Argo movie tells.
This attention to detail steals the show as Affleck has cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (8 Mile (2002), Babel (2006), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)) float an often hand-held camera between compositions that are at times centered on the characters and then shifted slightly to framing that focuses on the posters, signs and décor of the settings. All of the details of the 70’s are there in reproduced glory, and of the very real 444 days Americans were held hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981. Including the real television broadcasts from Ted Koppel and Tom Brokaw near the start of their careers and Walter Cronkite at the end of his. There’s also President Jimmy Carter, and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neal (but surprisingly no Ronald Reagan whose involvement helped win him votes).
Winning the film over however is the representation of pop culture, of toys, commercials, music, of Iranians eating Kentucky Fried Chicken, of reference to “the two old guys from the Muppets,” or to a photo in a Hollywood restaurant (could be The Formosa) of top TV star at the time, Lee Majors….all of these American, cultural artifacts cross-cut and mixed into this very hostile, foreign predicament digs deep, and ironically, into the American psyche of 1979 to draw some parallels to where we are with ideology in the world today. Regardless of the acting and the directing, it’s that attention to history’s past and commentary on the present, that gives Argo enough depth and complexity to keep audiences enthralled, while at the same time delivering some patent suspense to keep things entertaining.
The Flaws: And it’s one scene in particular near the film’s crescendo where I feel the suspense is overly manipulative; that we’re being made to feel tense and our emotions heightened by what amounts to something as simple as a phone call. Here is Affleck’s biggest failure with the film, is that he doesn’t take the time or forethought to use ingenuity and make that phone call something more than what it amounts to in the film—the equivalent of a simple plot device from a daytime soap, or a made-for-TV movie—to make this more like the movies of the 70’s.
The paradox of this, of all the work to recreate this unique time in history, is that none of the films of this period were this simple or non-violent. The risk Hollywood is afraid to take today, on films they, not audiences, might deem Oscar-worthy and Best Pictures, of the possibility of offending a wider audience with an alienating graphic moment or two, is what made the films of the 70’s so special. The true irony of this 70’s illusion is that Argo is missing the violent, sexual moxie and method acting—and subsequent long monologues—of true 70’s films. Films like Dog Day Afternoon (1975) or Three Days of the Condor (1975) which Argo tends to favor, but that are much better films than this one.
We also start to see bits and pieces from Return of the Jedi (1983), specifically a scene where C3PO tells the entire Star Wars story to the Ewok children, and we see brief caricatures of soldiers in jeeps that harkens back to the crazy Libyans in Back to the Future (1985). All taking place in nearly the same scene and sequence in the movie (could Affleck be too much in his childhood of the 80’s, instead where he needs to be in the 70’s for this film?). It’s too much all at once and poses a frustration—that we’re being made to care about something that on-screen looks and feels undeserving of our care, from what we’re used to in movies—lessens this film’s mostly riveting pacing. The disguise and under-the-nose-of-the-enemy action in a spy film like Clint Eastwood’s Firefox (1982) is more like what Argo’s forgery should feel like, and I will say it’s reminiscent of Eastwood’s film in that regard; but it doesn’t come off as suspenseful enough for the genre of a spy film. We might want to also see Argo’s spy moments to Tony Scott’s spy extraction film, Spy Game (2001) for enthralling comparisons.
The Call: Still, Argo is better than most of the films this year. Spend the ten. Argo is Ben Affleck’s third film as director, his second as actor and director and it’s produced by Grant Heslov and George Clooney who were both nominated for The Ides of March (2011) and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). Affleck joins that team in bringing historical, American perspectives to the movie and does so with a positive leadership behind the camera that suggests solid growth. It’s not something we see often, that late bloomer in Hollywood, but nonetheless it’s what moviemaking needs more of.
Rated R for language and some violent images. Running time is 2 hours. Also stars John Goodman and Oscar winner Alan Arkin as very funny Hollywood types who of course are based on true characters.
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