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Argo movie review: enjoy, but don’t go for the (Oscar) bait

Early buzz suggests Argo, director/star Ben Affleck’s entertaining “historical” thriller, has a good shot at the top prizes come awards season next year. Here’s why Hollywood should not reward it with an Oscar.

Argo

Don't rush A tense angry mob sequence at the beginning of Argo, a “real life” story brought to the screen by director and star Ben Affleck, depicts the American embassy in Iran under attack from militants circa 1979. Staff inside respond to the violent brouhaha by madly shredding and burning documents. Six manage to escape and take shelter in the home of a Canadian ambassador.

Back in the USA, bearded CIA “exfiltration” officer Tony Mendez (Affleck) concocts a ridiculous plan to bundle them out of the country. They will pretend to be a Canadian team of filmmakers scouting locations for a dodgy science fiction movie inspired by Planet of the Apes.

To give the ruse extra cred, they enlist the services of a Hollywood makeup artist (John Goodman) and a film producer (Alan Arkin). Mendez flies over and the embassy staff are suddenly thrust into the role of actors. They must remember invented pasts and backstories in preparation for a grilling at the airport (which, of course, is reserved for the final act, a cavalcade of ‘at the last minute’ dramatic contrivances). There’s even a scene reminiscent of a script reading/character workshop session.

If Affleck was even vaguely conscious or interested in the peculiar reality/fiction crossovers apparent in this scenario —  that it involves actors playing characters who are forced into the role of actors, while Affleck, the film’s director, plays a character who, pretending to be a producer, ‘directs’ their ‘performances’ — he doesn’t show it. There is no intellectual correlation between the two schools of thought.

Ordinarily this might not have registered as a problem but in a film as mercilessly mis-representative as this, with about as much fidelity to fact as a Casey Affleck-directed mockumentary starring Chopper Read as a criminal-cum-landscape artist, the problems with not drawing a connection between form and content become manifest and two-fold because: a) it is, at least in a historical perspective, a nonsense product and b) it’s about people delivering a nonsense product. The salt is the wound is that Affleck underlines the ridiculousness of one and takes the other with to-the-grave seriousness.

Affleck’s chops as a filmmaker were handsomely demonstrated in 2007′s Gone Baby Gone (less so in his self-obsessed The Town [2010]) and in Argo he has fashioned an entertaining picture. Nothing spectacular to write home about but certainly a cut-above-average American thriller framed with close, prickly cinematography and intuitive actor-oriented direction.

Scenes of bubbly show biz repartee between John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the make-up artist and producer (“if we’re gonna make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit”) are particularly good — deserving of a full length feature spin-off, or how about a TV mini-series? — and cement the film’s best running gag: the phrase “Argo fuck yourself.”

But Affleck has paraded well beyond dramatic liberties into a thick confetti of parochial myth-making, and it’s disconcerting to see how content he appears to be with trading fact for fiction.

In the entertainment delivery business everybody expects dramatic liberties to be taken. Everybody knows the rhythms required for interesting drama are different to the rhythms of real-life. Everybody knows a Hollywood studio picture is not a hub for level-headed historical representations. The challenge is not to recreate real events, which is impossible, but to find a way to make fiction truthful.

If Affleck had somehow linked Argo’s internal realities with its external context, the correlation could have formed a delicious commentary about a ridiculous Hollywood production about a ridiculous Hollywood production, about a fiction that saves lives in a fiction that celebrates the achievement, and, overlapping it, the transformative powers of cinema to make it all possible and to construct and dismantle its own legends.

The truly sad final twist in Argo may come well after its absurd finale (in the sense that virtually none of it happened), next February, when — if you believe the pundits’ current predictions — Affleck will take home an Oscar for helming an elephantine-sized lie about elephantine-sized lies, a historical film about the powers of fiction to determine real-life in a film that will probably play a key role in rewriting history.

If you thought Ben Affleck was anti-intellectual, and lord knows anybody who sat through Gigli (2003) could hardly think otherwise, perhaps he’s proven himself the opposite. Perhaps he’s a master of a weird kind of Orwellian doublethink, capable of building and dismantling one fictional deception while being oblivious to a far larger deception that contextualises and houses the other, gives it breathing space and meaning plus a poster, a trailer, a flag waving yee-haw for the great US of A…

Or perhaps, when confronted by the part of his brain that asked him to connect the outrageous embellishments of Argo with the outrageous nature of Hollywood itself, he crossed his arms and said “Argo fuck yourself”.

Argo’s Australian theatrical release date: October 25, 2012. 

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  • 1
    Laurence Barber
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Essentially my thoughts. Upon leaving the cinema, I couldn’t help but think, “That? That’s what people think the best film of the year is? Good lord, the standard is dropping.” It’s a good film, but it’s just so rote and…plain, and no real surprises at any point. It just made me want to watch Homeland, truthfully. I think I would just prefer something more different and inventive be the hugely-praised film this year, rather than another case of The Artist Syndrome/King’s Speech-itis.

    That said, I think that Argo is going to fall by the wayside in a big way, with Life of Pi, Django Unchained, Les Miserables and Hitchcock all coming out. Their collective weight should, theoretically anyway, drown out the Argo noise.

  • 2
    Stephen
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Lighten up, it was great patriotic fun, just what America needs to get over Storm Sandy. Pass me my copy of the stars and stripes.

    Admittedly, the captions spelling out the exact time and location were a little lazy. Ditto the cheesy Persian mini-history at the very beginning. Otherwise a nifty production.

  • 3
    Paul Bluck
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Saw it, and suspect the Canadian version of the story would be a better one. Some nuances would have been good, as well as a recognition of the complications of international relations.
    The film was ok, Affleck was competent as an actor, the more minor players looked like the people they were playing and, as director, Affleck created a bit of tension at the end. If the Academy thinks it’s the best film of 2012, the members must have missed an awful lot of what’s been around and what is likely to appear in the next couple of months.

  • 4
    Rebecca Dunstan
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Loved the movie, but then again I wasn’t thinking too deeply about it. The photos at the end that matched with the cinematography were particularly interesting.

    I don’t think the criticism for misrepresentation is fair. Real-life doesn’t make for good movies – surely Affleck is allowed to take creative license for his movie?

  • 5
    Filmmaker Tom
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Overall, I was impressed with the execution of the project..but, just floored when the departure sequences unfolded. How could anyone expect an audience to believe that a couple of cop cars and a truck full of Iranian fanatics could chase down a Boeing 747 during it’s take off
    phase? First of all, all of the vehicles mentioned above were shown to be directing behind and catching up with the 747 and more or less over taking the aircraft as it began it’s lift off phase!! 747′s rotate to airborne at between 185 and 190 miles per hour. And furthermore, placing themselves directly behind the 747 Aircraft as it’s powerful engines, with all of their mighty thrust propelled the craft down the runway, and none of the vehicles were blown away by such force is just beyond belief. They didn’t even fire their weapons at the craft. Okok…I’ll hush. I know one thing..had I been in the edit bay..there would have been one hell of a debate!!!

    Just saying….

  • 6
    Ramm Nathaniel
    Posted December 15, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    A little over-obsessed by the ‘movie within a movie’ logic Luke?
    I feel like writing an article within a comment within your article about it but I’m lost already!

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