Directed by Ben Affleck, written by Chris Terrio, starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
As every review and all the promotional material will tell you, Argo is based on a true story. It even reminds you at the start of the film – something I always find a little tacky. It’s like a subtle way of saying, “Go easy on me, this kinda happened once.”
The story follows Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs), a CIA operative who excels in extracting hostages from dire situations. In this case, there are six workers from the American Embassy in Iran hiding out in the Canadian ambassador’s house at the height of the 1979 Iranian revolution. If they leave, they’ll likely be captured and, as they fear, executed. So Mendez comes up with the idea to have the hostages pose as a fake film crew, enlisting a Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and a make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and optioning a crummy sci-fi script in the wake of Star Wars‘ massive success. They scout for locations while trying to avoid authorities and revolutionaries in Tehran, leading to a tense but narrow confrontation at the film’s peak.
Walking out of the film, I felt deflated. For all the plaudits and praise heaped upon Argo, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen an entirely different film to everyone else. That is not at all to say I didn’t enjoy it, but for the amount of praise it received I expected something more inventive and less rote. But ultimately, the film is just a fairly standard Hollywood-addled retelling of a fairly fascinating story. It builds to a classically tense hair of the chin climax, but underlying it the whole time is a heavy sense of “So what?”
It doesn’t have much to say about international relations. While many have pointed out that the film unfairly minimises the significance of Canada’s involvement in the operation, it also has little to say about politics at the time, either positively or negatively. It focuses all its time and effort on Mendez and the hostages, none of whom are particularly interesting. From an irritatingly stubborn Scoot McNairy to a bespectacled Clea DuVall, Mendez could have just as compellingly smuggled out a bunch of cardboard cut-outs with as much intrigue.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t want the hostages to be rescued, but in a film about hostage rescue, is it so much to ask that there be a reason to want them freed beyond the film telling they should/the fact that they’re white and trapped in a country of people who aren’t? Part of the problem with the lack of focus on the political situation in Iran is that the film does, to a small degree, leave the bitter taste of Western superiority. If you wanted to sum up the film in a line, it’s basically this: “A bunch of white men trying desperately to save some more white people from some brown people who want to kill them.” There’s no real nuance given to why the Iranians were revolting and, while by no means is what they did right, they could at least have been wrong in a more rounded fashion.
Ultimately, it’s a pretty tense, tight, well-shot drama, but phrases like ‘masterpiece’ and ‘best film of the year’ being bandied about in relation to it are somewhat shocking and highly surprising. There are so many ways in which this film could have capitalised on its historical context to make it mean something, but ultimately it’s only telling a story, albeit telling it quite well. I saw Pitch Perfect a couple of days beforehand and even it had some thematic points to make, as opposed to almost none.
But is “well-executed political thriller with a good lead performance and a couple of scene stealers” really the new high watermark? For me, the best film of the year needs to be more creative, more inventive, more licentious, less coddled (see Holy Motors, as an example). But I suppose for some, solid is just enough.
(Argo is in Australian cinemas October 25)
Note: While many are touting Argo as a Best Picture winner – and there are many ways in which it could be since it’s a Hollywood film about how great Hollywood is, suck it Canada – I can’t help but think such claims are misguided as the film is extremely unemotional and muted. I don’t know if the Academy, their pearls clutched alongside their Crash Blu-Rays, will go for something fairly low-key in the face of what are sure to be emotionally manipulative Oscar bait titles such as Les Miserables and Lincoln. But then, I saw The Artist last year and couldn’t fathom why anyone saw it as awards-worthy, so who knows?