Argo (2012) – Directed by Ben Affleck – Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Clea DuVall, Kyle Chandler, Tate Donovan, Michael Parks, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Rory Cochrane, Bob Gunton, Zeljko Ivanek, Philip Baker Hall, and Adrienne Barbeau.
Why is it ARGO gets Oscar talk yet The Avengers doesn’t?
I’m being purposely obtuse, of course. I know darn well why Avengers doesn’t get any Oscar talk, but I raise the issue to once again bash on awards shows. The Oscars is supposed to represent the best in cinema, is it not? Both ARGO and Avengers are incredibly well made movies with incredibly smart scripts, fantastic directing, great acting … yet ARGO will get Oscar buzz and Avengers will have to settle for being the third highest grossing movie of all time. It reasons like this why I don’t bother with the Oscars, as they are more politically and PR-driven than an actual award of filmmaking merit.
All of that is prelude to my reaction to ARGO, a darn good movie from the engaging directing hands of Ben Affleck. I was prepared for ARGO to be a solid drama, but I was not prepared for it to be funny.
ARGO is a very funny movie, however, chiefly through the first half of the movie before settling in for a tense, suspense-filled second half. It’s a smart decision, as it’s the first half of the movie where ARGO stands out from other political thrillers. Set during the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis, ARGO tells the based-on-true-life tale of how CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) extracted six American diplomats from the Canadian Embassy in Tehran. Mendez’s plan to get them out is to create cover identities for the diplomats as a film crew for an in-production science fiction film.
There are a myriads of problems with this plan, not the least of which is that it depends on putting a fake science fiction film into production in order to fool the Iranian security forces who are scouring Iran to take any stray Americans hostage. The film gets its biggest laughs from the discomfort this plan raises in the Washington bureaucrats and the open-minded embrace from Mendez’s two Hollywood partners, make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Goodman and Arkin are fantastic together, with Chambers’ enthusiasm balanced perfectly by Siegel’s calmer demeanor.
The Washington/Hollywood split shows an interesting approach to casting in ARGO. The Washington scenes are quick-hitting, with plenty of known actors playing bureaucrats. Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton, and Philip Baker Hall appear in a scene or two or three to question Mendez’s plan. None of these actors are playing characters as much as they are united in a kind of Gestalt of Dissent. Their job is to act incredulous, doubt Mendez’s plan, and make the CIA look smarter. In Hollywood, Chambers and Siegel become actual characters, allowing Goodman and Arkin to develop a wonderful chemistry in their shared effort to assist Mendez.
Affleck does a wonderful job contrasting the deadly seriousness of the hostages with the absurdity of creating the fake movie. While I’m sure it would have looked incredibly bad if the news got out that the CIA was in Hollywood getting Adrienne Barbeau to sign on for a movie they didn’t intend to make, it’s great fun for us and a smart creative decision to balance off the heaviness of the situation in Iran. Or worse, that they were putting on an elaborate reading of the movie for the press, with actors in full costume, just to try and get a notice in Variety in order to fool the Iranians. It’s a bit of weird world that we live in, of course, that sees us paying money to eat popcorn to see a story that exists because hostages were taken, but this is part of the way we cope with the hardships endured by previous generations.
Chambers and Siegel display a very cinematic attitude towards the plan, which is to say, that despite the gravity of the situation half a world away, they seem to enjoy playing junior spies. Chambers has a quip for every situation, and Siegel has a laid back, dry sense of humor. Both of these approaches allow Affleck to play Mendez as a rather boring dude. He’s serious about his work (which he needs to be), and Affleck sees no reason to give Mendez a bunch of over-inflated histrionics to make himself stand out. It’s a very understated performance, which allows his few fireworks moments to have a greater impact.
As I mentioned, it’s this first half of the film where ARGO stands out from other political thrillers. The back half is solidly put together and delivers a fair amount of tension, but it’s nothing that you can’t find in a whole host of other movies. Once Mendez hits Iran, ARGO is simply an extraction movie. To go back to the Avengers comparison, that script is much more complicated than this script, yet both of them do exactly what their respective movies need. The back-half of ARGO doesn’t need to be complicated because we’re already invested in the story. Really, the big star of the back half of the film isn’t Mendez or the hostages, but Bryan Cranston’s Jack O’Donnell.
O’Donnell is Mendez’s supervisor and at the start of the film he brings Mendez into a meeting wit the State Department, but encourages him to not get involved. State wants to run this situation, and O’Donnell is happy to let them do it. Mendez can’t help picking apart all of the various ideas that State has come up with to get a hostage out, as they’re the kind of ideas that sound good from a distance but would fall apart up close. (Like wanting to give the six hostages bikes so they could peddle for a border that is, as Mendez reminds them, several hundred miles away.) When Mendez comes up with his plan, State is hesitant to even listen, let alone sign on, but Mendez and O’Donnell’s sales pitch leads to two of the film’s best lines.
Both are from O’Donnell. On the way in to see Vice President Mondale (Hall) and another diplomat (really, the names of the diplomats and politicians are completely unimportant; as I said earlier, they work together to provide the Gestalt of Dissent), O’Donnell tells Mendez that talking to these two is going to be like “the Muppets talking to Statler and Waldorf.” Once inside the meeting, Mondale is skeptical and openly wonders if they don’t have better ideas, to which O’Donnell replies, “This is the best bad idea we’ve got.”
It’s O’Donnell that has the best dramatic scenes in the back half, too. After telling Mendez that the White House has called off the plan, Mendez stews on it (he takes a bottle of alcohol from the Canadian embassy but barely touches it), and then decides he’s going ahead with the plan anyways, White House be damned. This causes all sorts of problems for O’Donnell because Mendez’s plan needs his help. Specifically, O’Donnell needs to get the seven plane tickets out of Tehran confirmed before Mendez gets to the airport, or they’ll be all dressed up with nowhere to go. Cranston is fantastic running around Washington getting these tickets verified (he needs Presidential approval) and there’s a good bit of tension in Tehran with Mendez and the hostages getting through security. There are a couple beats that come off as trumped up, such as the tickets not being approved when Mendez checks in, but then appearing 30 seconds later, or Siegel and Chambers getting back to their office just as the Iranian security guard was pulling the phone away from his ear, but they don’t hurt the film in a significant away.
Indeed, even though I knew everyone was getting out, Affleck and his team do an amazing job creating as much tension as they do about what is essentially seven people getting on a plane. Affleck uses a lot of close-ups and a lot of contrasting frantic Iranians with nervous Americans, but it works really well.
Since I don’t watch awards shows, I don’t have any way of handicapping ARGO’s chances for getting nominations, but this is a very good movie. It is a quiet movie, though, that seems destined to be lost between the summer’s noise and the winter’s emotion. The only kick I get out of awards is that I realize that if people I like getting nominated or even win, that means there’s a greater chance I get to see more of them. There’s been a critical response around ARGO that Ben Affleck has arrived as a director. We see that Warner Brothers has taken notice, as Affleck was rumored to be in consideration for the Justice League movie. Both of these are good things for me because I like Affleck as a director. I see ARGO much less as a sign that he’s arrived, and rather as a sign that he’s established himself as a director who makes movies I want to see, as much for the stories he chooses to film as the way in which he assembles them.
Whatever film he directs next will be a film I’m already lined up to see.