Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is good movie. It’s a funny, thrilling drama about one CIA agent’s (Affleck) mission to rescue six American diplomats from the Canadian ambassador’s home during the Iranian hostage crisis. In another year, say 2011, “Argo” might have been considered one of the best films of the year. But in 2012, we had new film’s from Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg, Joe Carnahan, Gareth Evans, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, David Cronenberg, Michael Haneke, Rian Johnson, and Sam Mendes, all of which were better than Affleck’s third directorial effort. While “Argo” is “Avengers” and “Cabin in the Woods”, good it would be pretty tough to rationalize it as one of the top twenty movies released last year.
As has been the case since Affleck started directing, his filmmaking is better than his acting. “Argo’s” opening, which focuses on siege of the Iranian American embassy, is the best part of the film. It’s an energetic and sublimely chaotic sequence that achieves a verité intensity that the rest of the film only brushes against. And at the end of the film, where Affleck’s Tony Mendez and diplomats make a mad dash out of Iran, Affleck demonstrates a master of tension that recalls mid-period Spielberg. The middle of the film is less taught, moving between the diplomats increasing fear of discovery, Mendez’s creation of a fake science fiction film as cover for the hostages escape, and the maneuvering required to keep the CIA on board with Mendez’s far-fetched plan. The film’s middle is clearly designed to give the audience a breather in between sections of unrelenting tension and it was probably the correct choice to make the film as much of a crowd pleaser as possible. But for all of the film’s acclaim, it was one of the few prestige films of the year that didn’t receive any major nominations for its leading performance.
This is because Affleck isn’t a great actor. His part, written by Chris Terrio, is lightly sketched the way most studio picture leads are but Affleck makes the character almost a non-entity. The audience is made to understand that Mendez’s dedication to his job is so all-consuming that its lead to the breakup of his family and what appears to be his high functioning alcoholism. While the film is obviously meant to focus on the mission not missionary, it’s under developed lead creates a whole at the film’s center. Because we don’t have a real grasp on Mendez, it’s difficult to be concerned about the success of his mission. If Affleck had invested his character with the near religious devotion that Jessica Chastain’s similarly tasked character had in “Zero Dark Thirty” or even the zen like professionalism that Denzel Washington showed in “Flight”, the lead’s lack of a detailed interior life would make some sense but it doesn’t here. Affleck the director simply isn’t well served by Affleck the actor.
Affleck did make better casting choices with his supporting cast. Alan Arkin as the producer of the fake film from which “Argo” takes its title is funny and shrewd in that a way that feels totally convincing for a long time Hollywood player. John Goodman’s make-up artist is so funny and grounded that it makes you wish for an Arkin/Goodman centric “Argo” spin-off. And the hostages, including Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, and Scoot McNairy, are all able to make small roles that mostly call for terror and frustration into something real and gripping. Affleck doesn’t do as well by his Iranian characters, of which there are many but all of whom seem to be directed to be angry and violent as possible.
“Argo” isn’t a film of much ambiguity. The Iranians are the bad guys, the Americans are the good guys and the Canadians are super helpful. Affleck wasn’t interested in relating the complicated true story of how and why the American embassy in Iran was taken over or the slow, methodical way in which six stray hostages were recused in an incredibly unconventional way, ten minutes of Googling will tell you that. He was interested in spinning a thrilling yarn about a hero who single-handedly pulled off an amazing feat at time when America seemed in short supply of both. In that aim, he succeeds. But he did not make a stunning piece of cinema that will be looked upon as one of the better films made in this decade. Ben Affleck made a good movie in a year of great movies.
“Argo” can be purchased on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming through Amazon.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org