Argo (2012)

On March 23, 1998, two first-time screenwriters (and up and coming actors) named Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. That win is undeniably the main reason Argo, a well-made but mostly dull spy thriller, went on to win Best Picture fifteen years later. Had the film been helmed by a more seasoned director, or even a relative unknown, it never would have taken home the big prize. Because ultimately, the most interesting thing about Argo is that Ben Affleck directed it.

And the main reason Argo is being discussed right here, at this moment, is because… holy shit, the director of this year’s Best Picture winner just got hired to play Batman! This news was met with the expected internet vitriol, but come on, have we really forgotten how much comic book fans freaked out when Michael Keaton was cast in the same role? And that turned out okay. Sorta.

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In all honesty, I think Ben will do fine. It’s not like the role of Batman requires heavy-duty acting chops, especially in a Zack Snyder film, where the only real requirement is the ability to convincingly punch things in slow-mo, as well as fast-mo. And given that a potential multibillion-dollar, shared-universe Justice League franchise hangs in the balance, I doubt Affleck was cast without being run through a gauntlet of screen tests to prove he could pull it off.

And yet, having said all that, Affleck is a lazy, uninspired choice. He’s not a terrible actor, but he’s never been much more than passable in every role he’s ever played. He’s just so damn… adequate. And that applies to his performance in Argo, as well. You see, director Affleck went and made the same mistake as lots of directors before him: he cast Ben Affleck as the lead.

In Argo, Affleck is stoic and barely expressive throughout. While this was most likely an attempt to emulate Tony Mendez, the real-life CIA agent he’s playing, it was also surely the product of Affleck being fully aware of his limited range, and what sort of horrible things happen when he steps outside that range. Unfortunately, this leaves us with a black hole of charisma at the center of this movie.

Argo (2012)

For those who haven’t heard, Argo is based on the true story of the rescue of six Americans from Iran in 1980 during the height of the hostage crisis. At the start of the film, the deposed Shah of Iran is granted amnesty by the United States, an event that incites hundreds of students to storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and take American diplomats hostage. Unbeknownst to them, six of those diplomats are able to sneak out and take refuge in the Canadian Embassy.

Argo (2012)

The CIA struggles to come up with a viable option for getting them out, until Mendez hatches a crazy plan: He’ll create a fake movie production as a cover story, allowing the Americans to pose as a Canadian film crew and quietly slip out of Iran on a commercial flight.

For help, Mendez turns to John Chambers (played by John Goodman), the makeup artist who created Spock’s ears and won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes, and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who delivers a lot of broad, hacky jabs at Hollywood (“You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA!”) that you mostly expect to be followed up with a rimshot sound effect.

Argo (2012)

With their guidance, the CIA sets up a fake studio, buys a script, and puts ads in the trades to make the production seem legit. (We’re led to believe Argo, the fake movie within the movie, is a schlocky, Z-grade Star Wars rip-off, but in real life it began as a big budget adaptation of the Roger Zelazny novel Lord of Light. It was only after the project fell through that the CIA acquired the script and the storyboards—drawn by comics legend Jack Kirby—and renamed it Argo for their Canadian caper.)

Argo (2012)

From there, Mendez travels to Iran to brief the diplomats on their new identities, and begin the nerve-racking task of getting them on a plane and out of the country. Historical spoiler alert: he succeeds.

I will give the movie this much: It expertly builds tension in its final act, leading to a rousing, emotional finale, complete with a majestic score that screams “for your consideration” and a closing credits voiceover from Jimmy Carter himself to seal the deal. Affleck knows how to push all the right buttons in the film’s closing moments, and provided the Bruce Wayne stuff doesn’t completely bury him, he still has a promising career as a director ahead of him.

Argo (2012)

It’s a shame the rest of the film is so boring. The heart-pounding finale makes it easy to forget how nothing really happens for the hour preceding it. Also contributing to the boredom are the incredibly low stakes. We’re supposed to cheer for six people making it out of Iran, but not concern ourselves too much with the 52 others who would be held captive and tortured for another year. The ending feels like Team USA doing elaborate touchdown victory dances in the end zone while they’re still down by 60 points.

Argo (2012)

And of course, the movie loses all rewatchability once you learn the most riveting moments are completely made up. In real life, the diplomats breezed through airport security. There were no police cars speeding down the tarmac. The CIA didn’t threaten to pull the plug at the last minute. “Lester Siegel” never even existed.

Argo defenders are quick to point out that the movie isn’t a documentary. But where should the line be drawn when it comes to embellishing history? Is it still “based on a true story” when nearly half the movie is fiction?

But most of that is beside the point. The actual movie is beside the point. As far as the Best Picture Oscar is concerned, the quality of a film is secondary to the real-life narrative surrounding it. And in this case, we have the inspiring story of a promising talent who triumphantly returned from the dark depths of Gigli to become a respected filmmaker. Who cares if the director wing of the Academy didn’t even see fit to nominate Ben Affleck for Best Director? The Academy anointed Affleck and Damon with Oscar gold fifteen years ago, and they’ll be damned if at least one of them doesn’t make good on it.

But hey, Argo is nowhere near as bad as Crash, so at least there’s that.

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  • Alexa

    Well I wouldn’t call it boring, I still thought there was some really good, well shot, suspenseful parts to the movie. But I do have to contest that Ben Affleck was the weakest point in the film, since he’s just as you said “adequate” as an actor, and nothing more. But beyond that I thought the overall cast was great and the interactions between John Goodman and Alan Arkin, who was the best part of the movie IMO, were great. But yeah its not as great as I thought is was going to be, but still an interesting story overall, and Affleck is way better at directing then Snyder could ever dream of, is all I can say.

    • MichaelANovelli

      I would offer this counterargument:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxG2PuDGCyQ

      • Alexa

        To be fair after I wrote my comment I started thinking about it and remembered how great he was in this movie, and it is way more than adequate, and probably one of his best performances. Don’t hate the guy at all, just wish he could put more of the energy he had here into more roles. But I do stand corrected. :)

  • mofs

    Getting slightly frustrated by this anti-Affleck vibe sweeping the internet – the film got 96% on RottenTomatoes for chrissakes! No complaints about the film – while loose with the facts it remains a tense film with some fun performances (John Goodman appears to be perpetually typecast as a film mogul or Texan millionaire – cf The Artist) and a tight script with an understated performance by Affleck leading the film.

    • The Anti-Affleck vibe is nothing new. We’ve been making fun of Ben’s acting skills on this website since at least 2003.

    • Cristiona

      “understated” is just fancy for “dull”

  • Muthsarah

    I saw fifteen new movies in theatres last year, a broad sampling of big-budget, indy, loud, subtle, foreign, action, and even a little romance. And when I ranked the films, Argo was the twelfth-best. It really is…a movie. Not bad at all, just a very safe, formulaic movie.

    I hate to not disagree, but I can’t find fault with anything you said here. Affleck WAS dull; I like to believe he didn’t want to cast himself, but that the producers wanted a famous face to put on the posters. He claimed it, I can’t prove otherwise, and he seems like a nice guy, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

    Regarding the embellishment of history, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been a better idea for them to take the basic premise of Mendez’ operation, and just make up everything else. Set in some other country we don’t like right now (or Kreplakistan), rename every character, and don’t worry about following history. But keep the year. I’ve seen enough 70s films now that I subliminally associate their ghastly hair and clothing with quality movies.

  • MichaelANovelli

    What I like about Ben Affleck as a director is that he makes the kind of movies I like: the kind with some dirt under their fingernails!

    • Muthsarah

      At long last, that gritty Batman movie you’ve been waiting for!

  • Coffeeaddict

    There is one troubling aspect to the changes to history in the story. Ordinarily “based on a true story” type movies are only going to mislead those that haven’t heard or read about the history being discussed, and never do. More then the changes done to create tension, the part that does a real disservice to the real history is the single line near the end by the CIA that they will “Let” the Canadians take the credit to avoid blowback. The movie basically says “This is what happened. The real story is the myth.” and has the effect of giving a bad taste to all the real life video clips of thanks and awards that follow right after. It might be the first movie to mislead people about facts to stories they were already educated about.

    Not to take away from what Mendez did. He did risk his own life to escort the 6 out, and provided the cover story. The Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor wasn’t a spy, just a diplomat risking his life by helping. In addition to hiding the Americans in his residence,he bought the airline tickets for the flight out(multiple sets in case of any delay), drove them all to the airport, and waited til they got out in case something went wrong and they had to abort and go back. The Canadian passports weren’t copies either. In a closed session of parliament, they issued them real Canadian passports.

    As I understand it the original theatrical run even stated in the postscript that the CIA let Taylor take credit for political purposes, before changing it to the less offensive statement about the story being a model for co-operation between governments that it was for home release.

    • mofs

      It think U-571 was probable worse – it was so bad at depicting a (British) Royal Navy success as an American effort that it was condemned in parliament by Tony Blair! http://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/feb/25/u-571-reel-history

      • Coffeeaddict

        The size and significance of the the historical changes were likely greater in U-571, but what I’m saying is more people may believe the incorrect facts because of how it was handled in Argo. It would be like if at the end of U-571 they stated that Americans cracked the code, but for political reasons let the British say they had cracked it, but the truth has only now become declassified and any stories you read claiming it was the British are just based on outdated information. Where they actually have the nerve to infer that other versions of the story are just an old cover story. To not just change aspects in their version of the story, but to create doubt about the actual history.

  • Muthsarah

    Ahhhhhhhhthesitesdifferenteverythingsucksnow….

  • James Elfers

    Anyone who was alive at the time recalls just how grateful the United States was to Canada in the wake of the rescue. Make no mistake that it is primarily a Canadian plot that the CIA rode to success. Yes the CIA helped concoct the cover story but the risk was almost entirely Canadian. Having Jimmy Carter to provide voice over in the end is actually quite offensive. Carter had virtually nothing to do with this plan and his own effort at rescuing the hostages resulted in total defeat something Carter dubbed “An incomplete success.”
    This is yet another movie that tries to rehabilitate Jimmy Carter. The man whose personal actions led DIRECTLY to the U.S. embassy being stormed in the first place. I’m sorry but I am not going to buy a false narrative just because it is part of an entertaining, but thoroughly average film.