Film Review: Argo (dir. by Ben Affleck)

When I made out my list of my 26 favorite films of 2012, Argo came in at number 19,  I think that Argo is a likable, funny, and frequently exciting film.  Not only does it feature some of Ben Affleck’s best work as a director (though I still think Affleck has yet to top Gone, Baby, Gone) but also some of his best work as an actor.  If The Town left my skeptical about Affleck’s film-making talents, Argo made me a believer again.  That said, while I think that Argo is a good film, I don’t think it’s a great film but that opinion definitely places me in both the minority of filmgoers and, since my sister Erin considers Argo to be the best film of 2012, Bowmans as well.

Based on a true story, Argo takes place in 1979.  The Shah of Iran has been overthrown and the American embassy in Tehran is overrun by Islamic militants.  Over 50 Americans are taken hostage but six embassy workers manage to escape and end up hiding in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber).  The U.S. State Department has to find a way to get the six of them out of Iran before the militants discover their existence.

It’s up to CIA agent Tony Mendez (played, of course, by Ben Affleck) to come up with a better plan than attempting to smuggle bicycles into Iran.  Mendez’s scheme is to team up with a Hollywood makeup artist (John Goodman) and a B-movie producer (Alan Arkin) and to convince the Iranian government that he and the 6 embassy workers are actually a film crew and that they’re in Iran not on a rescue-and-escape mission but instead to scout locations for a science fiction film called Argo.

Argo, for the most part, works.  As a director, Affleck manages to deftly juggle both comedy and suspense.  The scenes where Arkin and Goodman teach Affleck how to be a Hollywood phony are frequently hilarious, while the scenes in Iran are effectively tense and claustrophobic.  The film is full of little period details that ring true and I’m still shocked that Argo didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for either Best Costume Design or Best Production Design.  The wide lapels on Ben Affleck’s suits may not have been as flamboyant as the costumes in Les Miserables but, like the costumes in Les Mis, the very sight of them not only transported us to a different time but made that time plausible as well.

As you might expect from an actor-turned-director, Affleck gets good performances from his entire cast.  Goodman and Arkin are both sympathetic as recognizable Hollywood types and Bryan Cranston has a few good scenes as a fellow CIA agent.  While the 6 hostages are all pretty much interchangeable, they are still all well-cast and sympathetic.

That said, when I saw the film, it was hard to escape the feeling that the first half of the film (in which the embassy workers hid out at the Ambassador’s house while Affleck, Arkin, and Goodman worked on promoting their fake film) was dramatically more interesting and compelling than the far more conventional second half.  Once Affleck actually reaches Tehran, Argo becomes a rather predictable, if still well-made and exciting, movie.  Perhaps that’s why, as much as I enjoyed Argo, the film didn’t make as much of an impression of me as a film with a more challenging narrative would have.  Ultimately, Argo tells the true story of people in tremendous danger but the film itself feels very safe.

Argo is one of the most acclaimed films of 2012 and it’s been nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture.  To just about everyone’s surprise, Ben Affleck was not nominated for best director.  While I personally would not have nominated either Argo or Affleck, the fact of the matter is that the reason Argo has received so much acclaim is because of Affleck’s work behind the camera.  Argo is such a director’s film that it’s next to impossible to argue that Argo‘s one of the best films of the year without also arguing that Affleck is one of the best directors of the year.  Hence, Affleck’s lack of a nomination does feel like a definite snub.  Even speaking as someone who was not as enthralled with Argo as much as everyone else, I would still have nominated Affleck long before I wasted a nomination on Benh Zeitlin for relying too much on a hand-held camera while filming Beasts of the Southern Wild.

While the Academy may have snubbed Affleck, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association did not.  Earlier this night, Affleck won the Golden Globe for best director and Argo won best picture.  (Though, I have to say, I find myself wondering if my friend Jason Tarwater was right when he suggested that the notorious starfuckers of the HFPA honored Argo mostly because they wanted to hang out with the film’s co-producer, George Clooney.)  Given the fact that it’s been over 20 years since a film won Best Picture without receiving a nomination for Best Director, Affleck and Clooney might just have to be happy with the universal acclaim.

18 responses to “Film Review: Argo (dir. by Ben Affleck)

  1. When I look at Affleck’s career it’s eerie to find how similar it’s trajectory has been to another actor-turned-director who was also considered a “heartthrob” and “bankable” star in the start of his career.

    I’m not saying that Argo is the film that makes Affleck the next Clint Eastwood but it’s definitely another stepping stone. Eastwood’s early directorial work were also critically-acclaimed and were considered both bold additions to a well-used genre (westerns for Eastwood and crime-dramas for Affleck). It was when they both went outside their comfort zone to try something different that people really took notice. For Eastwood it was Play Misty for Me which was his very first film as a director and for Affleck it took until Argo until people really looking at him as one who looks to be one of the best of the current crop of filmmakers.

    Be interesting to see if Affleck will continue to explore other genres or will he go back to Bostonian crime dramas.


    • What’s ironic about all the acclaim that Affleck’s getting for Argo is that Gone, Baby, Gone is a hundred times better than both The Town and Argo combined. That’s the film that both Afflecks deserved an Oscar for. 🙂

      The Eastwood/Affleck comparison is an apt one. To be honest, Mystic River feels more like Affleck than Eastwood.


      • I liked Gone, Baby, Gone, but I think Argo just edges it by a strand. I think with Gone, Baby, Gone he had better material to work with and it helped he had phenomenal performances from Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman and Amy Ryan. Argo was a much bigger gamble for Affleck that could easily have blown up in his face. His first two films were really simple affairs when compared to the more complex storyline (that did get a tad pedestrian at times which just goes to show that sometimes reality can be just as unoriginal as rehashed Hollywood scripts) in Argo. I didn’t mind the second half since for me it was the prestige of the first half’s pledge and turn in the narrative.


  2. Jimmy Lee Farnsworth (taking Fletch on a tour of BibleLand): You don’t suppose I used too many photographs of myself do you?

    Fletch: No, no. Worked for the Ayatollah.


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