by Rock ‘n Roll Ghost
Argo, Ben Affleck‘s third time directing, is his strongest, most assured film to date. It’s a solid film, well paced, smart and funny. So why is it I still haven’t loved a film that Affleck has directed? Critics praise his work behind the camera. His films and the performances by those in them get a slew of award nominations. They do well at the box office (well, The Town did). But I have yet to connect to any of them the way that I feel I should or thought I would.
In Argo, Affleck tells the story of the rescue of six people who managed to escape the storming of the American embassy in Iran in 1979 and find safe haven in the Canadian Ambassador’s home. Affleck portrays real life CIA specialist Tony Mendez, who manages to put together a crazy ass plan to go into Tehran disguised as a film crew scouting locations for a new sci-fi epic (in the middle of the mega-popularity of Star Wars) with the assist of Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, always a pleasure). Hey, it’s better than shipping six bicycles and some maps to them, right?
The section in Hollywood, easily the milieu Affleck knows very well, works the best. It’s also the “zippiest” part of the film as well. But it’s not as if Affleck steps wrong anywhere else. He directs with an even hand, his storytelling is focused, smart, but reserved. I never really got much of the danger that the people were in. Oh sure, I understood they were, he made that clear. I just never felt it.
Argo plays a bit like J.J. Abrams‘ Super 8. Both films feel more like well made copies of the films that influenced them (Super 8 with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Argo with, say, All the President’s Men). But that’s what Argo is, a great copy. There’s not the depth, or the fierceness that is necessary for a film with the political history that the Islamic revolution in Iran deserved.
Argo does move swiftly, is smart, well acted and directed and is often funny. But the stakes, save for the riveting opening depicting the actual storming of the American embassy in Iran, are not felt in the way that they should. The Americans trapped inside the Canadian ambassador’s house sometimes come off as whiny (considering the hell their counterparts were actually in at the time – these people were fed and seemed to be constantly drinking wine) or pointlessly stupid (one character, I can’t recall the actor nor his character’s name, but the really skinny guy with the goofy mustache married to a ridiculously attractive woman in the film – haha – oh wait! Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe, thanks IMDB). So perhaps it’s a bit of not caring for these characters? They were unlikable mostly for the fact that they lacked personality. I didn’t even realize Rory Cochrane was in the film until it was 3/4 over! And not just because he was disguised in some rather unfortunate facial hair, either.
It’s a problem with all of the characters, really. We get a glimpse of these people but the filmmakers don’t dig down deep enough, so the actors are required to do the heavy lifting and it’s only the really good ones (Goodman, Arkin, Affleck and Bryan Cranston) that manage to make hay. Which is a shame, because Argo could have been so much more moving if a little more effort had been given to its script.