REVIEW: ‘Argo’ (2012)

Grade: B

The festival darling and awards contender Argo is about as close as political thrillers get to becoming a thoroughly engaging entertainment, while not quite managing to fully thrill or provoke me outright. The third (and best) feature from Gone Baby Gone and The Town helmer Ben Affleck, there simply is no denying his talents as a mainstream engineer of visuals. The actor-turned-director/actor, whose new movie is based on the 1979 true story of a CIA operative staging a covert infiltration of Iran via a fake film production (rescuing six Americans in the process), demonstrates yet again his uncanny ability to build suspense and to deliver viscerally satisfying payoff. Without a doubt, his new movie is a high-spirited crowd-pleaser. Now if only Affleck thought to give his movie a little bit of heart as well.

For all my reservations, though, it warrants stressing how genuinely likeable and accessible Argo is, especially considering its politically charged template in the Iran Hostage Crisis. Affleck boldly opens his film with the staging of the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that precipitates the Crisis; an incident compelled, per the film, by a mob of Iranian protestors furious about the States’ granting of asylum to the deposed Shah Mohammad Reza. In a manner not dissimilar to how Steven Spielberg staged his harrowing prelude to Munich, Affleck cuts across different perspectives – from Iranian protestors to Embassy hostages-in-waiting – as an angry protest snowballs into a full-fledged coup – a coup from which the aforementioned six escapees slink away from their aggressors. Affleck blends in scattered, grainy images of the protests – images clearly shot in a way so as to resemble old news footage of that era. I call Affleck’s choices here bold because it is a clear act of provocation; it’s a stark reminder to those old enough to remember the Crisis’ prominence in American culture, and it’s an incitement upon younger viewers to draw parallels between our perception of Iran as a world citizen then and how we perceive the nation now. Affleck aims to project both reflection and urgency in his opening, and it is quite beautifully executed.

Understandably, but perhaps unfortunately, things take a more conventional turn once Argo’s plot starts to kick in. The CIA learns of the six American fugitives, as they are taken under the clandestine wing of the Canadian ambassador immediately following their escape. Brainstorming ideas on how to rescue the patriots-in-hiding, Agent Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) ultimately proposes the outlandish idea of infiltrating Iran by disguising himself – and the Embassy escapees – as a Canadian film crew hoping to shoot on-location in the nation’s capital. With no further options available – Tony’s boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) concedes his plan “is the best bad idea” available to them – the CIA backs the operation.

Tony enlists help from Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and crusty, washed-up director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to lend credibility and faux-publicity to the whole charade. The resulting “film” is Argo, a Middle-Easternized science fiction fable boasting a hackey script and only marginal hype from the media. Once the Hollywood facade is fully engineered, Tony embarks on the incredibly dangerous journey of flying to Iran, intercepting the six escaped Americans, turning them into Canadian filmmakers, and helping them “act” their way out of Tehran.

The script for Argo, written by Chris Terrio, requires its characters to move around from coast-to-coast in the States, in addition to dedicating considerable time in Iran. Tony Mendez leads us through most of the story, but many other characters are afforded miniature arcs of their own. A few too many, it must be said. We see the infiltration process in its entirety, from the acerbic, chummy camaraderie between Chambers and Goodman in Hollywood, to the reluctant supportiveness of O’Donnell at his desk in Langley, to the severe lack of credulity from those increasingly fearful American refugees who are one bad step removed from imprisonment, death and international disaster. Affleck even treats his Mendez character to a pathos-imbuing side plot involving his estranged wife and son.

Unfortunately, none of these superfluous arcs in Terrio’s overly busy script gets its proper due, and it impedes Argo from unqualified greatness. Whether that is an issue of convoluted storytelling or an overabundance of true-life facts the script is obligated to notate, I cannot say. But ultimately, the decision not to streamline the plot to Argo results in Affleck relinquishing any discernable lens through which the larger ideas apparent to Argo can be processed. Is our time spent in with those Hollywood insiders meant to indict an industry so vacuous in nature that it could serve as a plausible front for so absurdist an operation? Is our time spent with Tony as he laments his waning relationship with his family intended as some kind of work-versus-family meditation? And most importantly, wherefore art the political underpinnings hinted at in the movie’s artful opening sequence? Unless Affleck wished Argo’s admittedly impeccable depiction of Carter-era America as allegory for our ongoing conflicts with Iran and the Middle East (I’m not so sure about that), the movie seldom aims for much more challenging or savory than a genre-conforming exercise in thrills.

But that’s not to say such an approach can’t be satisfying in its own right. As an exercise, it truly must be reiterated that Argo is a taut, well acted and broad-reaching success; one sure to sate the appetite for anybody looking for a well-crafted Hollywood thriller. It is with this movie that Affleck truly proves his ability to ratchet tension with adroitness and assurance. Even if his characterizations leave much to be desired, many of the sequences he stages – as when he brings the conspicuously North American escapees on a “test-run” through the streets of Tehran, or in the movie’s utterly harrowing final sequence in the city’s airport terminal – left me leaning noticeably forward in my seat, gripping the arms of my chair. Were it not for its undeniable status as an awards contender, I’m not so sure Argo would be a movie I would ever find myself revisiting beyond my initial screening. But it still manages to leave an impression endearing enough that I wish more movies of its ilk were being made. Let’s hope, in the realm of mainstream filmmaking, Argo becomes a Hollywood trendsetter.

Bottom Line: Argo is an engrossing and truly entertaining political thriller, despite its marginally slim characterizations.

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  • Jose

    Not surprised about the grade, Affleck’s previous movies have given me a similar impression, so this one was more likely to give me the same one than blow me away.

  • Hilary Kissinger

    I was initially very interested in Argo based on the trailer I saw while waiting for Prometheus to start. But since then I’ve become wary of the film’s potential for rehashed American jingoism, othering of the swarms of dark, bearded men and stoking of old fears, which strikes me as especially unsettling given some current politicians’ warmongering on Iran. It feels like a vehicle for wishy-washy history (does it provide any context as to the reasons for the Iranian revolution or the US’s role in it?) that makes use of symbolic shortcuts for American audiences. I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t make a judgment of how it deals with this complex relationship, but from your review it seems fair to deem it a sort of myopic view of this true story that makes comic and dramatic use of a “gee aren’t Americans clever” storyline.

    • I think that’s a bit too cynical a spin on a film that isn’t meant to dig veraciously into the politics as much as the mission at hand. While I agree entirely with Justin that it’s no masterpiece, I don’t see that as decreasing the taut intensity that Affleck accomplishes with the film. It’s less a political thriller than it is a hostage-heist caper. I admired and enjoyed the film as a continuation of what Affleck was doing with his prior two features. If “Argo” wins Best Picture, it won’t be close to the biggest disappointment in the history of the award.

      • Hilary Kissinger

        Unfortunately, this is often the response whenever someone questions the ethical import or political undertones of a film – that it’s not interested in whatever is being called out, or it’s a “genre piece.” I don’t doubt that the film accomplishes what it sets out to do, and far from accusing ‘Argo’ of deliberately smuggling in ulterior motives, I worry that it suffers from unthinking American bias which is both pervasive and pernicious. You can’t set a film in one of the most explosive political moments between two countries and then claim it’s apolitical. I don’t fault Argo exclusively, of course (Hollywood has invented and reaffirmed xenophobic tropes since the beginning of the medium), but films that present some kind of an Other are worth a discussion, in my opinion. How does Argo generate its fear and suspense? Does it present the Iranians as individuals or as an indistinguishable (and unintelligible) horde? Does the camera ever linger on a gently waving American flag as some kind of counterpoint to the chaos “over there”?

        I don’t consider it cynical spin to be invested in cultural representation, even when that representation isn’t the “point” of a movie. Especially then, because the audience is not encouraged to think critically about the messages they are absorbing. Anyway, these are the kinds of conversations I like to have about film.

      • Much as I’d love to get into a fun, visceral debate about this, the film does ultimately speak for itself, and is definitely worth experiencing. I can say it’s certainly not offensive in the way it depicts Iran at the time, and in fact may be sticking too close to certifiable fact at times. That is to say that I do wish the civilians in Iran were accessed more intimately than they are given time to. It ultimately is a film about fugitives escaping or avoiding hostile territory.

  • Finally, a review that captures the film completely. Your bottom line is exactly what I’d say if someone asked me about it. It’s not something I’d watch again anytime soon and I don’t think deserves all of this early Oscar talk that people are spreading around.

    I do however think it’s his weakest effort, behind GBG and The Town. Those are A and A- films for sure.

  • “Is our time spent with Tony as he laments his waning relationship with his family intended as some kind of work-versus-family meditation?”

    Well, without it, Mendez isn’t really putting anything up for sacrifice to this cause, except his own life. How boring.

    “Unfortunately, none of these superfluous arcs in Terrio’s overly busy script gets its proper due.”

    I must gently disagree here. I feel they are given their proper due through the casting and performances of the actors. I feel that every actor, however brief their screentime, manages to craft a three-dimensional character out of the materials given to them. Affleck was wise not to give them much more time—indeed, the extended cut of The Town featured many more nice character moments, which unfortunately cripple the film’s pacing and make me want to whimper.

    Perhaps it’s a mere matter of taste. What you felt was rushed or shortchanged I simply felt was conveyed with great economy. If William Goldenberg is not nominated for an Oscar for his work here, I shall be cross for several consecutive minutes.

    • I wish I could have come to the same conclusion as you did regarding this movie’s sense of economy, G Clark. But I really did have a lot of trouble reading more in to the performances than what the script required of them.

      To be fair, the performances are all decent, but very seldom did I get a meaningful sense of depth to any of them. The Alan Arkin character is a total cartoon, for example. I feel like he is intended – beneath all the gruffness and cussing – to be a tragic, pathetic reflection of failure in the Hollywood system, and even an Ikiru-like chance for redemption in one’s waning years. I love Arkin, but here he is merely content to play up the gruffness and the cussing.

      Even worse, I honestly had very little emotional investment in the plight of American escapees. Sure, there are life-and-death stakes involved here, but I really wish it had taken more time to explore the added frustration these folks might be feeling when forces outside their control effectively upend all the diplomatic work that they do. This gets touched on a little bit – when one character expresses regret for not leaving the Embassy with his wife sooner – but to say that feeds into a larger theme this movie is working toward is akin to eating parsley and calling it a hearty meal. To pilfer your own words: how boring.

      Oh, and speaking of Affleck, let me be clear about my misgivings with Tony’s side-plot. My issue is not that it is there to begin with, but that it is extremely underserved both by the script and by its director/star. I agree, in theory, that introducing personal sacrifice makes Tony’s journey less boring. But I maintain the prodigal husband/father element in Argo is under-cooked. I might be inclined to use another word too: hackneyed. (SPOILER!!!) The late scene involving Tony and his wife reconciling is easily the movie’s weakest and most thoroughly unearned moment.

      But I do agree with you that Goldenberg does good work here… mostly. Admittedly, I was WAY more impressed by his intricate shifting of perspectives to generate the movie’s most tension-fraught sequences (the opening, the scene with the van driving through a swarm of Iranian protesters) than I was with his ability to balance thematic texture and a streamlined narrative. I think a 2012 movie that is much more successful in pulling off what you say Argo accomplishes with its editing and its performances is The Master. Granted, Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty are working with a much moodier and more elliptical narrative, but they do wonders in their contributions to that film’s protagonist and in conveying his fragmented connection to the real world. Also, it truly is the acting in that PTA film that lends cohesion to that particular narrative, since the script makes almost no point to make character motivation clear.

      Fortunately, though, Argo and The Master will both be nominated for Editing. And for what it’s worth – Goldenberg will probably win.

      • Oh, and now that I’ve picked Argo apart more than I probably wanted to, I feel now is as good a time as ever to reaffirm my affection for it. I don’t think it’s quite as good as the rest of the world seems to think, but it is an incredibly brisk, fun, and entertaining movie.

        World, please don’t hate me.

  • “…but to say that feeds into a larger theme this movie is working toward is akin to eating parsley and calling it a hearty meal. To pilfer your own words: ‘how boring’.”

    That’s not what I said. I never said that the movie was working towards a larger theme. You seem disappointed that shards of themes spring up and don’t quite develop; I didn’t have that problem with the film because I never thought it was developing an overarching theme. To use a phrase from my The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly review, you seem disappointed that all the trees only make a forest. And I responded to Affleck’s film the same way I responded to Leone’s film: shot by shot, moment by moment, it is a superbly crafted picture. I wasn’t emotionally invested in the lead trio of Leone’s film, but that didn’t matter.

    You compared the editing and performances to The Master, but I’m not certain that that’s quite fair. PTA’s film is so obviously a dramatization of a theme (what that theme is no one seems to agree on, but all seem to agree there is one there…). Every acting and editing choice PTA highlights is single-mindedly in pursuit of this theme, to the ‘detriment’ of plot. Affleck constructs Argo in exactly the opposite way: the plot is all that matters. You say, “Also, it truly is the acting in that PTA film that lends cohesion to that particular narrative.” I don’t think anything lends cohesion to The Master‘s narrative because I’m still not convinced it has one. That is not a problem for me, however.

    I love both films for these disparate, seemingly irreconcilable reasons. For the record, though, I do prefer The Master.

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