Jan 16, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.