I suspect that I wasn’t the only person surprised to hear that Ben Affleck has not only moved into directing but is actually reported to be quite good. This is not to say anything negative of his prior performances, but rather that nothing about the films that he starred in suggested an interest in the type of smart dramas and thrillers that he’s been making. It’s all made me curious about his films, and though I’d missed his first two, Argo appeared to be worth checking out. The trailer presented it as sharp and fun, and the buzz going into its opening weekend painted it as a smart thriller.
Argo has none of the Ocean’s Eleven charisma and glam that it presents in the trailer, though of course, the film cannot be faulted for this. Argo instead is a slow and fairly serious thriller taking place perpendicular to the Iranian hostage crisis. Six would-be hostages have escaped into Canadian custody. Ben Affleck’s character, Tony Mendez, has to get them out. The plan is to fake the production of a film. This is almost inherently a spectacle, as anything Hollywood is of legend to be. They deal with directors, producers, actors, and are then tasked with bringing the excitement to Iran. Even in the midst of a hostage situation, there’s something seriously cool that it can’t shake. This excitement doesn’t come across however outside of its connotations. The film itself is slowly paced, but not so in a careful and deliberate way. Rather, the film simply takes a long time in some places and a swift time in others. The setup is rushed where other sequences, though never at the point of dragging on, take an oddly long time to be accomplished. This isn’t something that adds to the tension, it’s simply poor pacing.
The film doesn’t present much in the way of character development. Outside of Mendez, we have the six hostages and a few bureaucrats who alternatingly stand in his way and help him. The hostages are all kind of scared and pissed off but are also drinking a lot of wine and having a good time. Mendez is temporarily estranged from his wife and son for reasons unknown. The film also hints at a drinking problem for all of two shots, but even the film can’t seem to tell if it wants to go through with this or not. He drinks wine quickly but only one glass. He stashes away a bottle of liquor but only takes one drink. Mendez’s character never becomes anything. He’s clever and dedicated, but that’s about it. What ‘development’ is included in the film never feels forced, but it does come off as obliging some undesirable need. At one point Mendez sits down with another character and asks him if he has a son so that he can talk about his own. Like all of the character development, it comes out of nowhere and no one is really interested in having the conversation.
Fortunately, the story itself is interesting enough to hold the piece up. The hostage crisis isn’t only a backdrop, it’s the war zone through which they must travel unnoticed. This creates an inherent tension and desire for success. Of course we want them out, and of course we want this cool plan to succeed. The tension works on this basic level, but it never really develops further than this. Most of the added tension relies on minor inconveniences. Someone is thirty seconds away from their telephone. Someone refreshed a database five seconds too soon. These are all issues artificially created and quickly resolved. For one, we have to believe that they just happen to be occurring simultaneously. Even then, these situations are as tense as waiting for customer support on the phone when you have a bill due in an hour or waiting for an elevator to come when you really want to get upstairs. The tension isn’t based on any fault of the characters or the mission, it’s just an irritation that holds things up momentarily.
We’re also frequently given brief shots from the Iranian’s point of view. This too is a cheap effect. Yes, tension and suspense can be based on knowledge the viewer has that the characters do not, but if this never has any effect on the characters, it’s all pointless or the movie Serendipity with John Cusack. Why not show us that if the characters were to open a door on either side of a room they could walk into either a pile of money or an axe murderer? If they don’t choose either door, it doesn’t really matter what’s behind them. At one point in the film we see guards scrambling to chase Mendez and his crew, but our main characters never actually discover this threat. And in fact, the only thing that holds the guards back from catching them are — surprise — minor inconveniences like a locked door. Every hint of tension in this film comes from close timing and bad luck, and none of it creates any legitimate problems.
Argo, like every other film that takes place in Iran, displays the country as convoluted and messy. It does a fine job at this and at presenting the style of the 70s. It all looks good and comes across as accurate without getting in the way. Otherwise, the visual choices don’t present much thoughtfulness. The film opens with bureaucrats walking through halls and talking. It could be cut from any episode of The West Wing. Quick turns, short halls, snappy conversations. It’s oddly familiar and unnecessary, and it doesn’t match anything else in the film. The only non-standard visual movements aren’t bad, but they’re tired and unhelpful. One sequence puts Mendez wandering about his hotel room, fading from one spot to another to signifying passing time. It’s nothing that couldn’t be better delivered in one intimate moment.
This is all very critical of Argo, though it isn’t actually a bad film. It’s successful enough in its ventures, and it’s base tension is enough to bring an enjoyment out of it. The buzz around the film, however, is distinctly odd. There’s nothing particularly interesting here in terms of plot or tension, and there’s quite literally nothing here in terms of character development. The characters never come off as flat or false, and that’s certainly a success, but it simply can’t be elevated due to these shortcomings. Argo works to a point, but it’s easy to see that it could have been reworked into something smarter and stronger.