With hindsight, it’s probably easy to make a case for Argo’s Best Picture win; sympathy with Affleck for his director nom snub, fatigue with the dry worthiness of frontrunner Lincoln, the unlikely scenario of a movie that can present Hollywood as a hero. It’s certainly no bar to recognition that Argo isn’t a great movie. It has a great premise, no doubt about that, of the “so far-fetched it has to be true” variety. But it drifts too far into “sexing-up” the material, which ultimately distances it from the best movies of the era that it is trying to ape.
Which is not to present a case that Argo should have been more accurate to the historical account of the rescue of six US diplomats from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. Fidelity has never borne much correspondence to quality in cinema, and what ultimately matters is the dramatic integrity of the finished film. Jimmy Carter seemed to get this, noting that he liked the movie but the rescue was 90% down to Canada (rather than the heroic CIA man who risks all). The problem arises where we can see the cogs and wheels of the Hollywood adaptation whirring and clicking away, creating a convenient conflagration of tension when a modicum would have served better.
The opening sequence, showing the escalating tensions that gave rise to the storming of the US Embassy in Iran is superb; tense and frightening, with the vulnerability of the staff made believably palpable by Affleck. And the partly storyboarded, potted history of Iran makes for a neat little introduction. A fine cast of non-stars (but mainly just-recognisable faces) has been assembled, encouraging an immersion on the part of the viewer only slightly tempered by the costume party attire and coiffeurs. Tate Donovan (Damages), Scoot McNairy (Killing Them Softly), Christopher Denham (Sound of My Voice) and Clea DuVall (Carnivale) all make strong impressions as tensions within their isolated group simmer.
Nothing else can quite match these sections, although the Hollywood scenes prove to be immense fun and are highly quotable. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are having a ball (“Argofuckyourself”) as producer and make-up man respectively. It may be that Hollywood smart talk writes itself, but their dialogue is no less funny for that (“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit”, “You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA”). Arkin, in particular, is on a late-stage career roll, proving generally to be the memorable presence in otherwise middling fare. Maybe Goodman’s given his agent a kick up the arse, as he is suddenly getting the pick of supporting roles again following a mostly forgettable post-millennium decade. There’s also a scene where Arkin options the Argo script from Richard Kind, who is as indelible as always.
Less all-together successful is the role of the CIA, which follows a fairly standard path (resourceful exfiltration expert goes ahead with his crazy-but-daring scheme against the direct orders of his superiors), despite the odd witty line (“This is the best bad idea we have, sir”). As with the broke-backed Zero Dark Thirty, our CIA protagonist is given a moment of ridiculously OTT gross insubordination (“Do your fucking job!”). He also has some ripe, over-written dialogue to contend with, comparing exfiltration to abortions. And, as with Killing Them Softly, Affleck feels the need to have a TV set on in the corner of the room in each scene showing coverage of the crisis (in Killing it was the 2008 election). It’s curious to see a movie where the CIA is established unquestionably as heroic (when did that last happen?), even if admits to the US’s involvement in the bringing to power of the Shah of Iran. Maybe this slight tonal discomfort results in the feeling that these are merely actors playing Spooks, or maybe it’s a consequence of a film playfully lifting the veil on moviemaking.
There’s little doubt that Affleck does a lousy job of making his hero's family life interesting; this aspect seems shoehorned in, to give Tony Mendez a semblance of a character arc (no one worried about Woodward and Bernstein needing fleshed-out backstory in All the President’s Men). There is the smallest sliver of relevance to the main story, in that the inspiration for the fake movie as a means to smuggle out the Embassy officials comes from watching TV with his son. But I don’t think it justifies an otherwise clumsy estranged husband and father subplot (I was hoping that, when Mendez arrives at his wife's house at the end and asks "Can I come in?", her reply would be "Argofuckyourself"). We even get a corny shot of him contemplating his wedding ring as he stashes it before going on assignment. Affleck is fine; at first I suspected vanity casting, but Mendez as a character is more a facilitator of the action than fully formed (making the family plot all-the-more extraneous). The film is littered with fine actors in small-ish roles, and Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek and Titus Welliver also deserved more screen time.
It’s in the final act that things begin to fall apart, as Affleck is unable to resist overegging the pudding with every scrap of tension he can muster (all those cuts away at crucial moments, to the piecing together of the shredded photos of the embassy staff, of flights being approved just in the nick of time etc) when really all he needed was the scene in which Scoot McNairy comes into his own and "sells" the film to their interrogators. Once we reach the point where the Revolutionary Guard is chasing the escapees’ Swissair flight along the runaway, we know that Affleck has forsaken any pretence at restraint and is content to throw anything into the mix he can.
But, as a director, he is improving with each film. There may be a bit too much of the student in his approach at present (studying Heat for The Town, All the President’s Men for this) and there’s something very literal about the way he attacks his material, but the results feel relatively seamless. Here, in particular, he manages the shifts in tone from life threatening claustrophobia to broad La-La-Land gags without fracturing the story as a whole.
Affleck has been compared to Sidney Lumet for his story-first, unimposing approach but I don't see him getting there quite yet; there's a surface gloss absence from Lumet's best work (there’s always a slight whiff of artifice to big moustaches and bad hair, like it’s a ‘70s theme night rather than an authentic milieu), and Ben needs to get past the urge to cast himself or little brother regardless of whether it suits the subject matter.
Argo was produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and was at one point considered as a directing project for one of them. I like that they have an eye for interesting and unusual historical/political material (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Syriana, The Ides of March) and the upcoming The Monuments Men looks to follow directly in Argo’s path (little-known but compelling historical incident, no doubt much-embellished, with appealing actor-director lead and ensemble cast). So far, though, they haven’t quite scored a home run with anything they’ve shepherded to screen. For all that Argo is an exciting and amusing ride, there isn’t much substance beneath the surface. It ends up more Sydney Pollack than Alan J Pakula.