Ben Affleck schools the “houseguests” on their backstories in his new movie, “Argo.” Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers promotional photographsSince “Argo” is based on a true story that happened more than 30 years ago, this review contains mild spoilers.
“Argo” sits precisely in the movie-snobbery sweet spot. Depending on your perspective, it’s either a film for thriller fans or a thriller for film snobs. Your response to it will be dictated by your predilections and your expectations. If you expect a self-serious Oscar contender, you may be surprised at the light-hearted dialogue during the film’s Hollywood interlude or the measures taken to increase tension in the climactic scenes. If, on the other hand, you expect rip-roaring thrill ride of a secret agent movie, you might be disappointed by the deliberate pacing or lack of death-defying gun battles.
The movie chronicles the CIA’s efforts to extract six American state department employees in Iran who managed to escape the American embassy just before it was stormed. The movie opens with the storming of the embassy, many of the shots essentially recreated from contemporary news footage. Much of the sequence operates without music, and the honest filmmaking lends the movie its visceral feel, resonating even stronger in light of recent events in Libya. “Argo” proceeds to follow Affleck as the CIA agent who comes up with the plan to bring them out of the country disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a new science fiction movie. Perhaps the best part of the movie is Affleck’s trip to Hollywood to create sufficient infrastructure surrounding his fake movie that it will hold up to potential Iranian investigation.
“Argo” is Ben Affleck’s third directorial effort, and it finds him both fitting deeper into his niche and finally standing out. His previous films, “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” also straddled the line between serious filmmaking and crowd-pleasing entertainment. All three are deliberate portrayals of flawed protagonists in prototypical movie scenarios – the crime drama, the heist movie, and now the espionage thriller. His movies are smartly written, well-acted and muscularly directed (have you seen his chest? Dude works out). Still, Affleck mostly avoids the pitfalls that can ensnare “serious filmmakers.” Self-importance, excessive cleverness, and extended periods of abstraction are nowhere to be found. Affleck simply tells his story, and lets the audience do the rest.
It’s a type of filmmaking too often absent in Hollywood right now. Most recent Hollywood movies fit into one of two categories: the lowest common denominator franchise tentpole, and the romantic comedy that is neither romantic nor comedic. This trend is driven, of course, by economics. It takes energy, effort, and, most importantly, money to develop new ideas and scenarios into movies. It’s a much safer bet for studios to spend their money on established, brand-name properties: “Batman,” “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” “Spider-Man,” etc. And romantic comedies are a staple for good reason: hire an up-and-coming comedian and a fresh-faced ingénue, buy the cheapest script off the “romantic comedy” pile, shoot in Toronto, and release it the weekend before Valentine’s Day: spend $20 million, take in $25 million the first weekend at the box office. Think about the demographics: two of the biggest groups of moviegoers are teenage boys (of all ages and genders, a group that will, importantly, see movies more than once in the theater), and couples on dates.
All of this has pushed the task of making everything else onto independent studios. In some ways this is great: digital cameras and the general advance of technology have lowered the price of making a movie, and, with the industry not controlled by an insular group of studio executives, decisions about what gets funding can be made on the basis of merit instead of connections. The indie industry, however, often fails to connect the best talent to the best scripts, hence the exodus of many “name” stars to cable television – if you want studio money behind an ambitious project, the place to be is HBO, AMC, or Showtime. All of this emphasizes Affleck’s importance: as an insider and a “name,” he himself has the clout to bring the best actors to the script. It shows in the depth of cast: Affleck himself, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and Kyle Chandler (Coach from “Friday Night Lights”).
Arkin in particular is fantastic as a big-shot producer that Goodman and Affleck hire to make their fake movie for their fake studio. Without ever talking about it, you feel in each scene how grateful and excited Arkin is to be doing something more than bullying studio executives making profitable movies.
There are two problems with the movie. First, and more minor, is Affleck the actor. Beyond the weirdness of him casting himself as the coolest guy in the room (although I guess he probably is often the coolest guy in the room), a storyline involving his estrangement from his wife, seemingly intended to humanize Affleck’s CIA agent, undermines his aura of confidence and seems at odds with the otherwise lean and focused film.
The second and more serious problem has to do with the film’s climax. It adds a few Hollywood embellishments to its already incredible real-life story, cheapening the tension the movie has built so well and faithfully towards. In particular, a tarmac chase seemingly stolen from “Liar, Liar” feels out of place in what should be the movie’s triumphant moment.
The problem is more glaring as a result of Affleck’s otherwise scrupulous attention to detail. In fact, the movie is one we as law students should especially appreciate, as it is an ode to detail. Much of the movie is spent building up the backstory of the Canadian film crew, and Affleck spends a good deal of time explaining how important knowing that backstory is. When one character pronounces the “t” in her fake home town of “Toronto,” she is surprised when Affleck tells her Canadians don’t pronounce the “t.” “Will they even know that?” she asks.
“Yes,” Affleck responds. “If they suspect you’re an American, they will bring in someone who knows that.” That attention to detail carries over to the filmmaking itself. The opening credits feature a shortened version of the history of Iran leading up to the hostage crisis, and the closing credits demonstrate that many of the actors look similar to their real-life counterparts.
Ultimately, though, in a bitter election season characterized mostly by presidential candidates arguing over whose fault it is that everything’s so bad, “Argo” is a nice reminder that America does get it right sometimes.