A decade ago or so, the thought of Ben Affleck winning an Academy Award would have been borderline laughable, except it had happened already. Back then, as he starred in a string of flops such as Reindeer Games, Darevdevil, Jersey Girl, Gigli, and Surviving Christmas, it was all-too-easy to forget Ben Affleck, the Oscar-winning co-writer of Good Will Hunting. He was just Jennifer Lopez’s lesser half.
Now Ben Affleck, Oscar contender is back. Argo is his third film as a director, and already it’s an early front-runner for Best Picture. Of course, it’s way too early to predict which movie will win the big race, but last year around this time, the rumblings about The Artist had already begun. And look how that turned out.
It happens often. The race is over before its even begun. Some years are more exciting, harder to predict — and it remains to be seen how this one will be. Argo certainly isn’t a lock by any means, but it mixes suspense, comedy, and Hollywood satire, and for proof that Hollywood loves itself, look no further than the nominees last year. This one has the right ingredients. So is Argo up to the task as the year’s best movie?Not entirely. Argo is the (mostly) true story of six would-be hostages in Iran at a very dicey time in that country’s political history. (As opposed to, you know, any other time in Iran.) They are “would-be” hostages because they actually manage to escape without ever being detected, seeking refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home. If they’re discovered, they’ll be held captive with the other Americans in the embassy. Perhaps killed. The United States government is at a a loss about how to extricate them from the situation.
But Ben Affleck isn’t!
The film’s opening sequence expertly sets up the dread and high stakes as a mob of outraged Iranians takes over the embassy, pointing guns and shouting at the frightened government employees, who fear the worst. (And rightly so.) The sheer number of extras in the scene is mind-blowing. We get the sense that anything could happen — and “anything” isn’t good.
But then the film travels to the United States, weeks later, where the CIA is hard at work on ideas for how to rescue the six. (They are apparently less concerned about the dozens of other Americans being held at gunpoint in the embassy.) Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, whose job it is to find a brilliant solution to this daunting dilemma. His son’s affinity for Planet Of The Apes causes a light bulb to go off over his head — he’ll make a fake movie! The hostages will play a fake Canadian film crew, he’ll be the fake financier/producer, and then he’ll really save everybody’s lives. But in order to sell it, he’ll need to go through the motions of really making the movie.The script he finds is Argo. Why Argo? No reason, really. It just happens to be in the pile. Here’s where I think the screenplay falters a bit, because we never even learn who wrote Argo. And I’m not just saying this just because I’m a screenwriter, but isn’t that kind of important? How does the guy who created Argo feel about his fake movie saving the lives of six people — at the expense of it ever being made? Argo (the Affleck movie, not the movie-within-a-movie) misses a few opportunities to draw a parallel between the artifice of moviemaking and the grim reality the hostages are faced with. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are brought into the mix as cynical film professionals, settling for easy jokes at Hollywood’s expense. That’s fine, but the movie might have had more soul if someone in it cared about movies. (There’s a lot of “Let me get this straight — you want to do what?”-type dialogue.) Tony Mendez is a bit thin on character — that whole “my wife and I are estranged, and my child is far away from me!” bit is an awfully tired bid for sympathy in movies. It might have been interesting if Tony had gotten somewhat wrapped up in the fake movie he was making. Or if someone had. But he’s all business. And the fact that he’s risking his life for these people doesn’t really come across.
Somewhat surprisingly, Argo doesn’t have much of the fondness for cinema that last year’s big winners Hugo and The Artist had, which may mean it won’t connect with Academy voters as well as they did. There’s not much warmth here, particularly in the Hollywood scenes; the film could have used more of Bowfinger‘s ragtag “let’s put on a show!” amateur whimsy, a little more love for B-movie Star Wars ripoffs (a la Galaxy Quest). It almost makes me wish the film had been written by Charlie Kaufman, and the script Mendez finds in that pile is Argo, but he’s shocked to discover that it’s about a CIA agent making a fake movie to rescue some hostages… and so on.But this is hardly a Charlie Kaufman movie. It’s a Ben Affleck joint. And on those terms, it’s more grown-up than The Town (though also broader, and less focused); it’s well-paced and breezy, if somewhat short on depth and character development. Argo wants to be a nail-biting thriller and a snappy Hollywood comedy all at the same time; also, to make a topical statement about foreign policy in the Middle East. It introduces us to the hostages, then the CIA agents trying to free them, and also the Canadian ambassador, the producers in Hollywood, an Iranian housekeeper, and so on. It’s always jumping around, making it difficult to get immersed in any one character or storyline. We want to see the hostages escape, of course, but when Mendez arrives, they’re kind of bratty. We’re only invested in their survival conceptually — our heart’s not in it.
And as in The Town, Affleck flubs the coda. Does he really think we cared about Mendez’s family drama all this time? There’s some discussion amongst critics that Affleck shouldn’t have cast himself (the character’s name is Mendez…), and it’s true that it does end up feeling somewhat like a vanity project. (As did The Town, but that movie was fine with a little camp added.) The role is so underwritten (like most in this movie), however, that a stronger performance wouldn’t have made much difference. If he wins an Oscar for this movie, it won’t be Best Actor.
Argo is slickly directed with a few satisfying moments of suspense. It didn’t leave me on the edge of my seat the way I anticipated, because I saw most of the reversals coming from miles away. Argo is nothing if not predictable — even the recurring “Argo fuck yourself” joke felt a bit forced to me.
Ultimately, I quite enjoyed the time I spent watching Argo, though I gather it’s too insubstantial to be a Best Picture. (It will almost surely get a nomination.) I know many other Best Picture winners have been fluffier than this, and Argo has some borrowed weight from current events of Iranian unrest, but still. Argo? It could have been so much more. There’s one pretty great scene when one of the hostages manages to charm some hostile Iranian security guards at the airport, by telling them the story of the fake Argo. They’re genuinely captivated by what they hear, but we as the audience never learn much about this never-to-be-made movie. From the brief glimpse we get (at a press conference held to make the project seem real — another fun scene), it doesn’t seem like such a bad movie. It seems to have more heart than this one, and there’s a part of me that just wishes that was the one being nominated for Best Picture. At least it’d be original.
Most of this Argo‘s suspense is borrowed from other movies. The Hollywood satire sure is. There’s almost nothing here that feel specific to this film and this film only. One wonders if the jaded approach to moviemaking contained in the film is the same spirit the real Argo was made with. Affleck has a good eye for strong material, but it feels like he’s more interest in telling his own story — “Hollywood beefcake turns over new leaf and directs Oscar-winning movies!” — than he is in telling his character’s. What attracted him to Argo? Was it just another script on the pile? Who wrote this thing, anyway?
Oh, right. It doesn’t matter.