(Originally posted at www.tkatthemovies.com)
Argo has its fair share of suspense, but it delivers no surprises. Ben Affleck’s largely entertaining thriller boasts a spectacular, gripping final act, but the film refuses to dig deeper than its surface pleasures. Well-researched depictions of ‘70s Hollywood and intelligence intrigue will certainly have older (and old-at-heart) audiences feeling nostalgic. And while I admittedly geeked out over the period-appropriate Warner Bros. logo, I also couldn’t help but think of WB political dramas like Dog Day Afternoon and All the President’s Men and just wonder what happened to the subversion and sophistication.
An opening sequence complete with voiceover and cleverly fitting storyboards efficiently summarizes the events leading up to the Iran hostage crisis. Argo hones in on six staff members who manage to escape the overtaken embassy and hide in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Determined to rescue them, Tony Mendez (look-at-me-do-it-all Affleck) of the CIA devises a silly yet profound cover involving a fake movie crew scouting for an exotic location in Tehran. With the help of his supervisor (Bryan Cranston), Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Mendez sets the risky plan in motion.
The movie is a hit-or-miss mix of Hollywood satire and CIA suspense. Most viewers will either know or figure out the ending long before the credits role, yet for the film’s final act, director Affleck, writer Chris Terrio and editor William Goldenberg (Miami Vice) deftly juggle the film’s multiple threads to maximize intensity. The pacing of cuts as the film jumps among CIA headquarters, L.A. and Tehran is impeccable, making for one of the most genuinely visceral set pieces I’ve seen in a while. The audience I saw the film audibly responded to twists and turns, and based on conversations with others, I sense this is not uncommon. It’s a filmic success so strong I wanted to forgive the film’s many flaws.
Alas, I cannot shake the film’s failings. While Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy offered a psychological, existential look at the (British) intelligence world, Argo obsesses over the superficial. Part of what made Tomas Alfredson’s masterful spy film so engaging was the subdued, introspective lead performance by Gary Oldman. Unfortunately, Argo has Affleck the Actor as its star. Consequently, the character of Tony Mendez is flat, a walking and talking plot device with seemingly no interiority. The film relies on clumsy characterization, humanizing Mendez with a story about his family that goes exactly where you think it’s going and is never given the attention it deserves. Affleck the Director is getting better and better, so he’s going to need better a leading man than Affleck the Actor.
It certainly doesn’t help that Affleck surrounded himself with such a stunning supporting cast. Cranston is the best here, given a chance to go a little nuts when the story demands it. He brings the tricky mix of warmth and intensity that makes him one of the most compelling actors working today. The actors playing the hiding diplomats all do a fine job, even if they are dealt with as units of a collective rather than individuals. As a know-it-all Hollywood producer, Arkin plays the crotchety wise man he usually plays, and he injects life into a caricature of a role.
The Hollywood material wouldn’t be nearly as successful if actors less skilled than Arkin and Goodman were tasked with selling it. The scenes depicting show business are fun, but much of the humor is too broad. One-liners about know-nothing big shots and fake movies are clever, but the writing here is never as incisive as it should be. Too many scenes seem forcefully punctuated with oh-so-funny zingers. The CIA comedy is also plagued by this clunky deliberateness. Early scenes of Affleck and Cranston walking and talking, full of wit and sarcasm, feel like pale imitations of Aaron Sorkin, whose writing is much more thoughtful and, quite frankly, funnier. The Artist charmed off the pants of most people with its empty nostalgia, grounded in a vague sense of Hollywood history. Argo is similar, a pastiche content with toothless, sanitized versions of our past.
This empty connection with history is Argo’s most significant problem. More problematic than its cute conception of L.A. is the political vacuum it occupies. If period dramas have failed us, it is their ambivalent relationship with actual history and people, more fascinated with superficial references than bigger, more sophisticated questions. The film didn’t need to necessarily address the political implications of the Iran hostage crisis, but it’s disappointing that these events serve as mere window dressing for a largely rote thriller. Iran provides a tense environment for the story, but I cannot help but wonder if the film relies too heavily on the “foreignness” of the Other to incite fear. I don’t bring this up as an absolute condemnation but as an issue to wrestle with. The film’s treatment of Iranian people walks the thin line between identification with the hostages and simplistic dehumanization of non-Americans.
Unsurprisingly, the film ends with side-by-side comparisons, the fictionalized characters or events juxtaposed with their real-life counterparts. It is one thing to marvel at the makeup work for the characters and another thing entirely to announce how accurately the film depicts a flag burning or, most horrifically, a corpse hanging in the streets. Even when it comes to death, Argo seems too impressed with itself without truly reckoning with the reality of its images. WB political dramas like Dog Day Afternoon and All the President’s Men worked so well as engaging stories, full of humor and suspense, yet they also dared to truly think about politics and history. Argo is plenty of fun. It’s content to be clever, and it believes production design and challenging ideas are mutually exclusive. In other words, it should do well at the Oscars.