January 20, 2013

Argo (01/20/2013)

Lettergrade: C+

We finally got around to seeing Argo last week… The movie tells the true story of how CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed) got six foreign service workers out of revolution-torn Iran in 1980 by posing as the crew for a crappy science-fiction movie. Perhaps I had unnaturally high expectations stemming from an awards season where the picture has gotten a lot of attention, but I thought the movie was just "okay." Big sections of it actually struck me as a little imbalanced and weirdly paced at times.

The opening of the film is strong, as is the second half (although Affleck and his screenwriter took some biiiiiiig liberties with the actual events, including a dramatic chase on an airport runway that is a complete work of fiction), but the scenes in between were the ones that came off as the most out of place and self-serving. Specifically, I mean the Hollywood scenes. To give his fake movie some credibility, Affleck recruits a Hollywood prosthetic effects guy played by John Goodman, who in turn gets a producer played by Alan Arkin involved. Arkin's character is a composite of several people who were actually involved in the real mission, but in the film he's basically just playing the exact same character that Dustin Hoffman played in 1998's Wag The Dog. They license an actual script that had been on the market for a while, hold casting sessions, set up an office at The Burbank Studios (which is now Warner Bros.), and get a couple blurbs written about them in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter on the off chance, I guess, that someone in Iran subscribes to either and follows entertainment news fervidly.

This segment, too, shows events that didn't quite happen the way the movie says they did, and I must say I wondered why they merit so much screen time. Nearly every scene ends with a snappy inside-Hollywood joke ("You want to be a big-shot in Hollywood without actually doing anything? You'll fit right in!") and I'm not sure what Goodman and Arkin are even really doing in the movie other than to give it some comic relief. They don't have anything to do with the success of the mission, ultimately, other than sitting by a phone in case someone from Iran calls to verify that this "Argo" movie is really a real movie that's really being made. Nearly all of the time spent setting up the fake movie cover in that first half is entirely inconsequential to the movie's second half.

These complaints aside, however, I just felt that the movie lacked personality and heart. You never get to know any of the foreign service workers who are trying to get out of Iran, although we are given brief thumbnail histories here and there. We get an underdeveloped backstory to Affleck's character which, even if it is true, feels like a cliché from the movie device rulebook. Breaking Bad's Brian Cranston, appearing as Affleck's boss at the CIA, leaves the strongest impression, really, and he's not even all that major a character in flick.

The real story of Argo is an amazing one, to be sure, but I always try to be careful to not confuse my feelings for a real-life event with my feelings for whatever the movie achieves independently. Does that make me a cold bastard? Yeah, probably, but I'm annoyed when people give a movie that has a lot of problems a big pass when the magic words "based on a true story" appear somewhere on the film or it's trailer. That sort of thing can give a movie a little more poignance and intrigue - and I guess it does here - but it shouldn't absolve a movie from not quite working.

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