You have to figure any movie that wins a bunch of statues and gold chiffon has better have some salt or else, and I guess “Argo” has got a lot of cupboard space filled with seasonings from critics, audiences and the like. “Argo” was a big winner at the 85th Academy Awards show this year after all, and before that it earned five Golden Globe nominations and Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 19th Screen Actors Guild Awards. Apparently Ben’s early stumbles and spectacular staggerings (“Gigli” and “Daredevil”, etc.) are behind him and he can finally get down to the business of making movies. Sure, “Argo” is a good movie and it’s got a lot of fine acting and writing but you have to own going in that it’s hardly grand in the grandeur of big-screen movies. Call it big the way you think television fills your home screen entertainment room and leave the big screen to other films.
That being said, “Argo” is a film I heartily recommend, albeit with one small caveat: take a sandwich. Think of it as the perfect double feature or prelude to something more outdoors-y. While it is true you don’t always have to have “big” exteriors when “big” interiors are handled this well, the lack of playground space is going to cramp some. So go see this film as an accompaniment; maybe you sandwich the screening between a James Bond love affair with senseless, sparkling mayhem and a slowed down character flick of your choosing. This has double feature written all over it. Pick up a couple of other movies while you’re at it and if all goes South in a hurry you can skip around, go and come back, have a hot dog why don’t you and then give it a while. Call “Argo” the lettuce and the cheese – just make sure you’ve got the right accoutrements to make it a meal.
So maybe now folks from either side of the aisle will finally give Ben Affleck some credit. He maybe didn’t win the right awards in all the categories you’d figure, given the film’s success, but he’s doing the doing part and like all the famous actor-turned-directors out there he’s got the playing field poised for his next big thing. What he does with it and how well it’s received is as always, the whole enchilada in the smorgasbord of Hollywood.
The premise for “Argo” is a tag line and the tag line is “Argo” – after a United States embassy in Tehran is overrun and most of the staff are taken hostage, a handful of resourceful types sneak out the back while their comrades make for good, manhandled distractions. It’s sort of like George Castanza pushing his way through women and children and the infirm to escape the fire but that’s breezed over pretty quickly. When news gets to the CIA, and all the other lamebrain schemes to rescue them are hashed out in the grand fashion of certain failure versus most likely to fail, CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) hatches up the plan of all plans – make a fake movie to be produced in Tehran, fly in as the team leader and executive producer, collect the various prisoners hold up awaiting capture, then fly out together under the ruse of a Canadian film crew. What’s not to like? Well, improbability aside and movie-maker insider nods and winks pushed to the limits, a calculated script with a strong cast rewards patience and promises good character acting. “Argo” is a good film but I’m hard pressed to call it great, to wash it in gold statues because it just doesn’t feel like a big screen film, you know? Like all the intimate real estate just doesn’t go grand enough to make it, well, grand enough. I suppose the films appeal in Hollywood is rather obvious in the same fashion that Scorsese’s “Hugo” captured the awards committees in 2010 and Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist” seemed like a shoe-in for gold statues and adoration in 2011 for embracing the Hollywood machine so. There’s just something about the right subject matter that goes a long way in a day and age when television continues to encroach every month on what used to be a captive audience of theater goers. The result is a film that entertains even as it begins to fade from memory almost immediately, replaced by the third installments of well-worn franchises and other pictures scampering in the wake of inflated finales and teenage vampire flicks rising and falling in the tides of popular appetites.
I must admit I was already intrigued by the story in “Argo” before I even screened the trailer. The subject of the Iran Hostage Crisis as a dramatic backdrop for a story about personal and real world hostages was a fundamental through-line in my short film “Once Beautiful Past”. While “Argo” was based on a story from Wired magazine titled “The Great Escape” about a secret CIA mission known as “The Canadian Caper” by Joshuah Berman in 2007, my film was inspired by my grandfather and his battle with mental illness in the 1980’s. I decided to set my story in 1980 during the hostage crisis, both to reflect on the time period when my grandfather was ill and to incorporate themes of hostage and crisis into my narrative. I actually used clips from the actual Iran hostage crisis (that I paid a pretty penny to use, let me tell you) as a visual and aural metaphor for lives imprisoned by consequences beyond their control and the wounded people in their lives . “Once Beautiful Past” was my graduate thesis film at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
So “Argo” should be on your list of movies to watch if you’ve missed it up to now. Be advised that the thrills come in bite-fulls and the story is much more about an ensemble cast than any one particular actor or character. You have to accept going in that this one is less action and explosions for the sake of internalized battlefields than external ones – you know, the stuff that award show folks eat with a spoon. It boils down to effective portraits of actual persons by Affleck, Alan Arkin and John Goodman with the combined production prowess of Affleck, Grant Heslov and George Clooney to see the thing through. You see in Hollywood, the long shots get made when the appropriate star power greases the machine, however unlikely a winner, regardless of the story – much like the make-believe movie production at the center of the film that fuels real and make believe Hollywood dreams.