Friday, August 8, 2014

Summer of Films: Argo (2012)

Argo is one of those film. If it had been released in the 1990s, it would have been dismissed as pointless, predictable and dull. But in our current age of dumbed down filmmaking, Argo is seen as something of a decent and interesting film. In fact, the critics gave it a 96% score. It deserved a 60%.

** Spoiler Alert **
Argo is based on the real story of the CIA’s efforts to rescue a handful of American Embassy personnel from Iran during the evil Carter years. The story begins with the Iranians storming the American Embassy in Tehran. As they do, six Americans escape out the back of the Embassy. They make their way to the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor. From there, they call home for help.
Back in Washington, the various agencies feud about who will run the operation to rescue these six. Eventually, the CIA takes charge and they float a number of operations. None of them are good options. The one they ultimately choose involves a CIA operative (Ben Affleck) going to Iran, pretending to be a location scout for a movie company. The movie they are making is a bizarre and pathetic Star Wars knock-off called Argo, and they claim they want to film in various parts of Tehran and the surrounding country. The real plan, however, is to pick up the six, who will pretend to be part of the film crew and then leave Iran under Canadian passports.

Naturally, the plan runs into complications throughout and they barely escape.
This film is a lost opportunity.
This film has serious potential. For one thing, you have a truly interesting setting. Not only is this an interesting historical moment, but it’s a fascinating location to set a film as few other Western films have ever been filmed in Iran. For another, you have a series of fascinating storylines that are ripe for exploitation. For example, you can explore how to set up a genuine film company as they need to set one up to support their story in the event the Iranians do any investigation of who they are. Then you have the question of how they navigate the Iranian government, which was awash in revolutionaries. Finally, you have the escape plot itself, which calls out for dramatic near-misses. Each of these aspects should make for an excellent and interesting film if done right.
Unfortunately, the film fails to exploit these things because the film is lazily written. Indeed, the biggest problem with the film is that it never digs into the details of what happens. For example, we are never told how they really escape. We are never told how Affleck can fly in as one person and leave as seven without this raising huge red flags. We get hints of Iranian interference, but there is never a sense given of how systematic this is, whether the interference is getting worse or better, or even if the Iranians are really aware of the true identity of the six or are just being difficult. The result is a film that plays out only on the surface and, consequently, never gives us enough information to know when the characters are in danger and what things would increase their danger. As a result, the film struggles to create the tension and angst that should be inherent in its theoretically provocative storyline.
In fact, where this really comes through is at the end. As the six try to make their way through the airport and onto the commercial jetliner waiting for them, we see other Iranians racing to the airport to stop them. But we don’t really have an idea who these Iranians are or if they represent a true threat. We’re not even sure what they will accuse the six of, or if the six have a reasonable defense. We don’t know how long it will take these Iranians to get to the airport. We don’t know where in the airport the six are at any particular time. We don’t know if the Iranians can stop the plane or if the six are safe once they board. The result is that we are basically told that the law of films will apply, which means we will be shown a series of fake near misses as the characters make a hair-splitting escape in the final frame. But since we know they will escape, and we have no way to track how finely the hair is being split, all we can do is watch indifferently as things happen that feel meaningless and fake to us as the film drives toward an inevitable and obvious ending.
Moreover, adding things like some random airport guard deciding to call the Argo production company to verify their credentials doesn’t add any tension because this feels like a film gimmick to raise the level of tension, which tells us right away that nothing will come of it. Having the Iranians race out onto the runway doesn’t add tension either because, again, this feels like a film gimmick. Indeed, a more realistic ending would involve the tower cancelling permission to leave or the Iranians blocking the runway...not racing alongside the plane.

Argo is a story with true potential, but the film underwhelms at every turn. This is a film that doesn’t care about its characters and which prefers Hollywood gimmicks to the solid drama available to it. In a way, it’s as if Affleck (the director) just didn’t care enough to learn the story except at a surface level and he plugged the holes where the tension was missing with chase movie tropes. That makes this film really hard to like.



tryanmax said...

Seen it and it was utterly forgettable. I think much of the problem come of following too many characters. Without getting to know any if them, how can we hope to care?

Tennessee Jed said...

I tend to disagree a little bit. After seeing the film, I researched it to determine what the controversy was (Hollywood over stated the roll of Hollywood and understated the role of the Canadians. It is a fine line between getting into the details and keeping up the tension. I should probably go back and look at it again, because I'm certain I didn't think about some of those items. My feeling was they concentrated on Affleck's character at the expense of the others to maintain a tempo, and probably increased the tension etc. over reality to make it seem more like a thriller. I like your comment though about how in today's Hollywood, it is easy for a mediocre film to look halfway decent in bad company.

PikeBishop said...

I tried to watch this film. Could not get over the "flashback" rage of the opening ten minutes. When our country was run by (what my father called him during his first campaign) the Georgia Jackass. Impotent, flaccid, mealy-mouthed Jimmuh, reflecting what Nixon, Vietnam, Watergate and a Dem supermajority in Congress led us too. Even a fictionalized drama provoked this response in me. I walked out of the room and my wife eventually shut it off.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That is the root of the problem. They offer us 6+ people, plus various others they interact with, plus Affleck, plus the Hollywood people... and you never get to know any of them. So you're left not really caring what happens.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, "A mediocre film hiding in bad company" is the best way to describe this film. Had this come out 10 years ago, I would have totally dismissed it. But today, the bar is so low that you're just happy this isn't another mindless blockbuster.

In terms of the accuracy, I didn't go into it in the review, but I understand that the film really downplays the efforts of several countries all to make Hollywood seem more important. What I find frustrating about that is that if they are willing to change fundamental facts to tell a better story, then why not go further and make this a better story all around.

I agree, that is what they were doing with Affleck -- trying to give the film a pulse through him as the hero.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Ironically, the film has nothing to do with Carter. I don't think his name is even mentioned after the opening.

Unknown said...

I watched this on a plane - essentially a captive audience - and it passed the time reasonably well. I found the setting and plot interesting enough to engage my attention (I didn't fall asleep). In particular, it worked for me that we essentially saw events through the eyes of Affleck's character and the rescuees: they had no idea whether the Iranian authorities were on to them, and we were placed in their position. I thought it was a nice touch that some apparently pointless detailed characterization helped them at the end, and shared in their sigh of relief when they left Iranian airspace.

In summary: nothing really special, but not so bad a movie either.

AndrewPrice said...

John, I definitely don't want to imply that this was a bad movie. It wasn't. It passed the time. It just wasn't a very interesting or memorable film and I think it wasted a tremendous amount of potential because it had no depth.

That's why I say that in comparison to the other things out right now, this was a good movie. In comparison to a better age, this would have been dismissed as lacking any real punch.

Unknown said...

I agree with your point, but it depends on what you mean by 60%, and I think Argo had some depth by being immersive.

Good effort, 65% perhaps, and there are plenty of interesting movies around these days: Black Swan, The King's Speech, Grand Hotel Budapest, Cloud Atlas, Inception, Gravity, Her, The Lego Movie, The Girl with...., Midnight in Paris (to name a few)

However, I can't deny that 2012 was a lowpoint: even Skyfall was considered to be a decent movie then!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Superb review, Andrew!
IRT Affleck, in every film I have seen him in I wanna like him as an actor but he always seems to fall short. Same with most of Clooney's recent roles, but Clooney at least has more charisma.
Affleck is worse as a director than he is as an actor so I didn't expect much and I didn't see anything noteworthy.
I gotta bad feeling about what he'll do to Batman, but I hope I'm wrong.

Floyd R. Turbo said...

Yeah... I didn't regret my time or money spent on the film, but neither do I remember being impacted in any other way than being reminded that my parents and grandparents were embarrassed by Jimmy Carter and the nation was relieved and excited by the hostage release.

The Canadians no doubt carried the water, but I understood the choice of Affleck's character as a protagonist. In addition the Hollywood plot line added some humor to it. Any time you can get Alan Arkin doing Alan Arkin I'm all for it.

Tennessee Jed said...

the fact that this movie won best film oscar pretty much says it all when talking about looking better in a weak field.

Kit said...

So... it should not have won Best Picture?

I haven't seen it but I saw the other Best Picture contender Silver Linings Playbook and I loved it.

AndrewPrice said...

John, There have been some good films lately and you've named many of them. What seems to be wrong right now is that the next big chunk of films which is usually "good but not great" is missing. And in place of those, we are getting just horrible blockbusters. In the past, I would argue, you had a lot more of those films.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben! I agree. Affleck is weak as a director and he doesn't have the charisma of someone like a Clooney. Clooney has been picking awful films, but still has enough charisma in the tank to make you interested. I don't have a similar feeling for Affleck.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, I wish they had spent more time on the Hollywood plotline because it was the most interesting part. I also don't mind them focusing on Affleck. I understand that for film reasons. It's just too bad they didn't put more effort into making the rest of the film more entertaining as a film.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, "weak field" is right. I doubt this one would have won in the past... probably wouldn't even have been nominated.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, No, I wouldn't have given this one the award.

Anonymous said...

I liked this movie, but I have no need to revisit it. I wasn't familiar with the original events so any deviations didn't bother me. The only thing that did bother me was that the airport guards would just happen to have a copy of Variety at the airport handy for one of them to see at the last minute. One of those movie coincidences.

I like Affleck - he's been to the bottom and I'm glad he's finally back on (or near) the top.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I didn't care at all that they changed events. I just wish they had changed them more to make it a little more focused. It just never hit its stride as an entertaining movie.

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