Argo is the second of 2012’s late year films arriving in theaters with heavy loads of Oscar buzz attempting to bring home the hearts of film-goers, and more specifically, the Academy come February. Following The Master, the five year toil of the director whose previous film was perhaps the most critically acclaimed of the last decade, hype for Argo was comparatively restrained. With two stellar efforts behind him, director Ben Affleck is well-liked in Hollywood circles but still likely hoped this film would shake off some of the vestiges of the ever-persistent fan-boy hate factory criticisms aimed at his acting (some of which was admittedly deserved). While Affleck has certainly proven he doesn’t need to take these accusations seriously by this point, the real question for many is still simply: How’s the film?
It’s a bit strange to compare The Master and Argo though. In many ways, they are polar opposites. There are a variety of reasons for this, but they can be best illustrated simply by sharing my experience viewing the two movies. When the end credits appeared for The Master, I was treated to silence as everyone sat in their seats for what felt like several minutes, followed by a man in the row ahead of me off-handedly saying “What?” and some of the audience laughing in sympathy. When the lights went on for Argo, the audience roared with applause and numerous people vocally showered accolades upon the film – it is the only film I’ve ever seen in theaters to receive a standing ovation. While I should preface this by saying I’ve heard audiences clap at films as diverse as The Maltese Falcon and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (that one really hurt), I can undoubtedly say that the audience reaction to Argo is the most vocally positive I’ve ever experienced upon leaving a theater.
The Master is a cold, clinical, labyrinthine, intellectually stimulating, beguiling examination of loneliness that doubles as a masterpiece of visual and aural technique. In other words, extremely rewarding for those willing to explore every crevice of the film, but not exactly a recipe for instant gratification. Argo, while still something of a slow burn, crackles with tension, paranoia, and excitement. It’s directed with a certain hyper-functional leanness that bubbles its strengths up to the surface and leaves nothing underneath. It is, compared to the Kubrickian existential chill of the anti-Oscarbait The Master, “a crowd pleaser” designed for standing ovations. It tackles a complex issue with enough depth to appease high-minded film-goers without confusing audiences. It feels vaguely patriotic in a level-headed rather than jingoistic way, it details a little known but heroic effort within a much-remembered and heated time in modern world politics, and if that wasn’t enough for 10 or 12 Oscar nominations, it one ups itself by tying the making of a fake science fiction film into the heroic operation, thereby implicitly reaffirming the heroism of the film industry and those involved with it. At least that’s surely what the Academy will think when Argo gets its Best Picture nomination…and maybe even its win.
During the late 1970s, tensions in Iran steadily increased as revolutionary fighters grew more and more committed to questioning and combating the Pahlavi dynasty’s rule over Iran, something which ultimately lead to a revolution in 1979. While the impacts were far-reaching, for many Americans at the time Iran brought only images of the overtaken US embassy in Tehran. What was not known at the time however was that six staff members at the embassy had escaped and were hidden in the nearby Canadian consulate, and that a cooperative US-Canada operation was underway to rescue them. Headed by CIA Agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), this mission required complete secrecy for everyone not directly involved. Many options were suggested, but ultimately the CIA turned to Hollywood, and most specifically make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) (aided by the fictional Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) in the film). In order to rescue the hostages, the CIA would have to make it seem as if the hostages were involved in the filming of “Argo” (actually a fake production designed for the escape). The CIA would have to make it seem as though “Argo” was just another in the long line of post-Star Wars films popular during the science fiction film craze of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and both the American people and the Iranian government would have to believe this as well.
Which tells us that Argo, the real 2012 film, is a work that is carbon-copied for Oscar glory from an assemblage of ticks and traits ready-made for wide audiences, and, importantly, American audiences. It does not tell us whether Argo is any good. It is, although it willfully avoids being any better than that. The poetic depiction of working class life in Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck’s previous films, are, on the whole, more satisfying chunks of impressionistic malaise and melancholy, but Argo is good while it lasts. It boasts the simple, straightforwardly functional quality of a superbly crafted Hollywood movie designed first and foremost to entertain for adults, and in this regard above all else, it is perhaps most reminiscent of the time period it depicts. Argo would be right at home released in the late ’70s/early ’80s at the tail end of the American New Wave, and it occasionally seems like a long-lost classic of the period that’s only now getting its due.
A minor classic, though. While Argo is resoundingly well-constructed in a muscular, terse Eastwood-inspired way, it almost actively avoids superlative statements, rejecting greatness for a capable forward push that is too clean and well-crafted to be anything less than good. But it is also never anything more than good, and compared to, say, the lingering existentialism of The Master, Argo fades away post-viewing. Affleck is undoubtedly a good director, stable in his craft and resolutely capable of stringing scenes together with a propulsive clip and a knowing verisimilitude, but he avoids any singular greatness. A word for Argo might be “sturdy”, in the way of so many Hollywood thrillers from the 1970s, but its glowing reception seems more the result of how paltry and uncommon this sort of sturdy, capable craftwork is in the modern era, rather than because Argo itself is a particularly glowing example of the form.
This being said, there’s another way in which Argo recycles classic Hollywood: it is, for all its craft and entertainment value, constructing a world in which we innately must sympathize with its American protagonists. Argo tries to de-emphasize politics, never allowing it to get in the way of what is at heart an escape thriller. It pays lip-service to the complex morality of the situation; early on, when a fellow employee remarks about how violent the protestors were in taking over the consulate, a CIA employee bluntly responds: what did you expect, we helped kill their family and friends. This being said, this and a few other lines feel like throwaways, the kind designed by Hollywood liberals to feign political conscientiousness and hide the fact that most audiences will interpret the film’s Iranian revolutionaries as villains. We are never meaningfully privy to the drained, dejected spirit and bitter anger that facilitated the Iranian revolution, the losses they’d suffered at the hands of a US backed government, nor do we really come to see the dangers of this US backing. All we really see is the positive tension and energy coming from a US intervention to save a few hostages, which makes the feigns to conscientiousness a little dishonest. As well-crafted as the film is, its effect is fundamentally in-separable from what veers toward Orientalism and the innate understanding that US audiences will cling to a story which makes first-world individuals out to be the primary victims of this conflict.
A notable point, although, it must be said, not the makings of a bad film, but simply a problematic one. For Argo is a good film, but its morality is similar to its craft: functional and sharp and composed without ever alighting or courting danger or trouble. It feels like a safe film, safe in all of its anti-ostentatious filmmaking credentials and safe in its neoliberal gestures toward third world understanding that ultimately do nothing but hide its fundamental sympathies to America as a nation.
Within, the shining light is, of all things, the comedy, which has a snappy, glossy, sardonic variety that fits the sheen of the late ’70s like a glove. It is edge-work and not the core of the film, but the greatest pleasures of the movie are when it showcases the Hollywood transition to late ’70s sci-fi and fantasy cinema with all the carnival and chaos the time period afforded, producers hustling and rustling to find the next big thing and running to any and all comers hoping for a chunk of the change. The fake “Argo” film is chock full of glittery pageantry, Affleck highlighting the material by using flashy visuals and dressing up the Hollywood scenes in chic late ’70s party music. These scenes play like obvious fakery as his camera warbles around like a disco ball, and not something out of reality. There’s an air of self-conscious parody to these scenes, a sense of artifice that both exposes the anarchy of Hollywood in the midst of transition and comments on the implicit artifice of the Argo film we are watching, the one Ben Affleck the director is showing us. Of course, all this operates on a relatively timid cinematic level – as a deconstruction of cinema, it’s purely conceptual and narrative-bound, rather than a burrowing mad scientist experiment into the physical bones of filmmaking that adroitly distorts the physical celluloid along editing or visual lines. But, hey, it’s cute while it lasts, as cinematically conservative as it is.
Generally, then, it is when Argo comes up for air for the sideways dalliances with Hollywood history that it is at its best. But for a great long well, Argo is underwater and holding its breath as the steams bubble up and the tension mounts to solid if unexceptional effect. Outside of its pop postmodernism, Argo is basically a process-oriented work of procedural hyper-competence, with characters and situations all assembled together and set to stun. We don’t really feel any specific empathy for anyone involved in the film, but they’re all part of the propulsion. It feels a little predetermined and prestige-y, like a packaged work of Hollywood thrills more than a living, breathing slice-of-life a la Affleck’s two other behind-the-camera films.
While those felt like passion projects for his native Boston, lived-in depictions of a life he still feels a tinge of home in, Argo feels more like a slightly sterile project he hand-picked to enter into the big leagues. It’s extremely well-made, monstrously so at times, even if it walks the line between hollow and durable. As for which side it falls, I cannot yet tell. Ultimately, Argo’s middlebrow complacency is its quasi-undoing. It finds itself in a bind that it cannot escape: aware of how politically specious and socially problematic its story is, aware of how questionable its own line is, it walks so cautiously, gripped in mortal terror of falling off, that it is matched in its sturdy acceptability only by its immanent refusal to accomplish – or even try – anything more interesting. It is so deathly afraid of offending anyone that it ultimately squares itself off and cleans itself up, scrubbing away the eccentricities and oddities and curiosities that make films worth living for. As for me, I enjoy it in the most passive way for two hours and then file it away as an object not worthy of reconsideration. If that’s damning with faint praise, well, Argo is so petrified of being damned by anyone that I suspect it will be happy with the praise.