Movie Review: “Argo” (Ben Affleck, USA 2012)

Let’s start with something that everyone should understand before going in: This film is a political film. It is 100% intended to help Barack Obama win re-election. It’s a jingoistic film meant to say, “Oh, look how awesome the USA is! And how peaceful solutions work! And how Muslims are capable of self-sacrifice and bravery too!” (Yes, sadly enough, it has to make that last point.) It’s Ben Affleck and George Clooney’s (also credited as a producer) contribution to Obama’s re-election fund, just as running the trailers for Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2012) since about June is Kathryn Bigelow’s and doing the same for Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA/India 2012) is Steven Spielberg’s. This type of politically-motivated filmmaking and releasing around election dates is not the slightest bit unusual. The only thing that’s unusual is that a couple of big-budget big studio films (Argo and Lincoln) are openly on the Democratic side (Even Spielberg, who made the most obvious piece of pro-Bush propaganda ever in The War of the Worlds [USA 2005], seemingly confirming that his foray into the business side of Hollywood had converted him politically!) where Hollywood’s heavy money is typically entirely on the Republican side (and those are around–Red Dawn [Dan Bradley, USA 2012] is the obvious typical piece of right wing action propaganda).

Unlike Clooney’s own political entry for this election, The Ides of March (George Clooney, USA 2011) (“You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can’t fuck the interns!” It’s great when a movie tells you everything you need to know about it in one line.), Affleck makes his political point with a bit of subtlety and care. One thing that has appeared clear throughout Affleck’s directing career so far is that he’s interested in taking a tight narrative within a typical genre and adding a confounding element, exploring what that confounding variable does to adjust the meaning and shape of that narrative. He’s also shown that he completely lacks visual imagination (which may be a side effect of going into directing immediately able to do whatever he wants, though the aforementioned Clooney has actually shown an impressive visual imagination in spite of the same circumstances), and a disturbing willingness to cast himself in spite of his own extreme limitations as an actor.

Considering Affleck’s career in those terms, Argo is exactly what one would expect. He begins with a fairly typical spy-thriller concept about a covert operation to pull a few hidden American embassy employees out of a riotous Iran filled with anti-American sentiment but adds the twist that the cover for the operation is . . . making a movie! So, we get a little comic relief foray into Hollywood making fun of itself. However, that foray is really nothing more than a short bit of comic relief–the film does not become a self-referential comedic genre exercise along the lines of The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet, USA 1997), The Player (Robert Altman, USA 1992), and The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2011). For me, that was a disappointing non-development, because I love that sort of self-referential comedy. However, I understand the decision on Affleck’s part (and it turns out that doing anything comedic would be problematic, after recent events that Affleck could not have anticipated), because it would have been easy for the levity to take over the film, and he keeps things very serious by putting the relief in its own box separated from everything else. It was almost like Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, USA 1986), which keeps Allen’s comedic plot separated from the more serious moments. The comedy gets enough breath that it does relieve what could have been an oppressively serious film, and keeping it separated from the serious plot was sensible, if not what I would choose.

Also, while it was a shame to see Affleck cast himself in ostensibly the starring role again, it turns out not to have been a problem in several ways. First, the character doesn’t show much of any emotion, allowing Affleck’s limitations to hide under his bizarre ’70s beard. Second, the few times when the character should show emotions, Affleck smartly doesn’t show his own face, relying on Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score and the situation to fill in what he himself cannot do. It’s a too-little-used but often effective trick (Watch The Omen [Richard Donner, UK/USA 1976] and pay attention to Gregory Peck’s emotional breakdown. It happens off-screen. Jerry Goldsmith’s score, one of the best in film history, gives that film a bit of an unfair advantage here, but why are people so rarely willing to admit to their actors’ limitations?), and Affleck definitely deserves credit for being willing to use it on himself. Overall, it turns out that his performance simply does not matter to the film.

However, Affleck once again lets himself down with a complete lack of visual imagination. The film just doesn’t have anything interesting to it visually. It’s competent, sure, but it’s absolutely nothing special, which is a shame for a film that had some potential otherwise. I would love to see him work with a more interesting cinematographer and see what would happen, but Rodrigo Prieto is frankly uninteresting. The genius of Conrad Hall made Sam Mendes look like an interesting director for nearly a decade. I’m not sure there is another genius like him around, but what about Peter Deming or Robert Richardson? Just somebody who’s done something interesting before might be enough to take him from “passable” to “good.”

There isn’t much anyone could do acting-wise throughout the film, so no one stood out in a good or bad way.

Overall, it’s an okay film. It’s nothing special, but it’s certainly decent.

Originally Written and Posted on Facebook October 12, 2012. Slightly edited.

A small update since this film has now won three Academy Awards, including the coveted Best Picture prize. That award doesn’t mean this film is any better than I thought it was from the beginning, but its win brings up the question of why such an average film would win the prestigious award. The answer is that, while this is a clearly political film, it’s also a film that praises the film industry. The entire movie-within-a-movie subplot, which pulls back from skewering Hollywood in any meaningful way, conveys the message that films have a power to help solve the world’s political problems (a message that could easily be seen as self-congratulatory, given the film’s obvious political goals). It’s not exactly the same message as The Artist (Michael Hazanavicious, France/Belgium/USA 2011) used to take home the award last year, but the spirit is very much the same, and it’s a spirit that wins this award with some regularity.

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3 thoughts on “Movie Review: “Argo” (Ben Affleck, USA 2012)

  1. Interesting review. I thought this movie was outstanding, although I recognize that there is a huge element of “American, F yeah” to it. I’m okay with that, though.

    A lot of this film is fictional, and I didn’t realize the extent of it until after I saw it. President Carter came out and said the Canadians were responsible for 90% of the success of the operation. I understand why that wouldn’t make for as good of a Hollywood movie (Canada, F yeah doesn’t have the same ring to it), but you certainly have to acknowledge the liberties taken when discussing the movie.

    That said, I thought it was an incredibly entertaining thriller. I thought it deserved best picture and the story fascinated me, even if story needs to be bolded. But I do not have fine movie tastes.

    • Well, how much you like a movie and how good it is are really separate things, at least to some of us. My standard example is that I really like most of the Harry Potter films, but only one of them is any good at all.

      To me, Argo was that type of film, really. I did enjoy it quite a bit (in fact, I probably enjoyed it more than Zero Dark Thirty, which I thought was a much better film), but I didn’t think it was very good. I don’t think I did a very good job in this review of spelling out that the central failings of the film were it places narrative above meaning and tries to tell too much, which are major issues to me.

      To explain that a bit more fully, I have to explain something about the way I look at films, for better or for worse. My favorite film professor in undergrad always said that a good film can be summed up in three words or fewer. While he never spelled out exactly why that is in class, my explanation has always been the simple limitation of time. A film typically has something around two hours with which to work. That’s roughly 1/5 of as long as a typical novel or 1/8 of a cable TV season, which is not long enough to tell a full, well-rounded story with fully-developed characters like those media can. As a result, a film can only make one “point.” I know many (including some critics) disagree with me on this point, but it’s sort of the central hook on which much of my analysis hangs. Hence, the point and how well the film advances it in all ways is more important than plot and narrative.

      This film tries to make two unrelated points: (1) that America is great and (2) that film can make a difference. Because of the mixing of two points, it doesn’t make either anything close to fully, which limits the film from being able to be anything special. The film could have attempted to make both its main plot and its side plot advance one of these points, but in so doing would have had to make major changes to what is a tight, well-constructed narrative at this point. Probably, choosing to stick with that narrative as Affleck did is a better commercial choice than what I would have done, but I still think it makes a lesser film.

      As to the liberties with history, I just usually don’t address those things when reviewing. They’re important for discussion, but to me they are outside of the purview of the film’s actual quality.

      And now we see why it is that I once wrote 40 pages for a 25-page paper in law school! :)

      Thanks again for the visit and comments, Chase.

  2. Pingback: Movie Review: “Escape from L.A.” (John Carpenter, USA 1996) | Crowd of Full Pockets

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