“Argo” is a very good movie, it’s just not a great movie. That’s a dangerous thing to write, considering Ben Affleck’s third feature as a director is the Ray Romano of Oscar season: Everybody loves this one.
Of course, it’s easy to see why: Affleck is a pro’s pro as a director, and the final hour — when Affleck’s Tony Mendez sneaks six Americans through Iranian airport security — contains some of the best filmmaking of 2012. Perhaps his time on the set of “Reindeer Games” was well spent; Affleck’s work in the last act of “Argo” is worthy of any and all comparisons to John Frankenheimer. My problems with the film are with what comes before that conclusion: “Argo” is almost three films in one, and the first two films aren’t as sharp.
For the three of you who don’t know the story: “Argo” is about a CIA mission to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis using a fake Hollywood movie as cover. Affleck stars as the CIA exfiltration expert, John Goodman and Alan Arkin are the Hollywood guys who help him put the movie together, and character actors like Bryan Cranston, Chris Messina, Philip Baker Hall, Bob Gunton, Titus Welliver and Kyle Chandler play various bureaucrats. (The six Americans are portrayed by, in order of greatness: Scoot McNairy, Clea Duvall, Rory Cochrane, Tate Donovan, Kerry Bishe, Christopher Denham.)
As you can see, there are a lot of characters and a lot of balls in “Argo,” and Affleck doesn’t seem quite sure how to get them all in the air. The film’s first ten minutes are clumsy and exposition-heavy without ever being all that affecting. (“Argo” apes the opening credits of “The Kingdom,” but not nearly as well.) One of the most thrilling parts of this declassified secret mission is how the six Americans — who were working in the visa office — escaped when Iranian protesters stormed the embassy. In “Argo,” however, Affleck spends far too much time with the six as they debate whether escape is possible, which is followed by a fairly quick cut to them arriving at the Canadian ambassadors house (where they’ll spend the better part of the next three months). How did they get there? You apparently have to read the Wired magazine article about their escape to find out.
Things aren’t that much better once Affleck’s Mendez decides on the outlandish Hollywood plot, if only because it doesn’t seem that outlandish. Not to be that guy, but considering the State Department and CIA were, among other things, planning to give the six refugees bicycles to ride some 300 miles to the border, concocting a fake movie only seems marginally more insane.
The Hollywood scenes in “Argo” are being hailed as part of the film’s success, but they felt like a missed opportunity. Goodman is wonderful as makeup artist John Chambers, but Arkin’s performance as a fading producer is hammy and obvious; Dustin Hoffman did that role better in “Wag the Dog,” and Elliot Gould and Carl Reiner probably could have done it better as well. The biggest problem with the Hollywood section of “Argo” is that everything happens too easily. Mendez flies in, convinces Chambers and Arkin’s Lester Siegel to help him, finds a script, fools the media — to make sure the cover was strong, Siegel stages a reading of the “Argo” script, which gets covered in Variety — and flies out. If “Argo” is essentially a caper film like “Ocean’s 11” (only with people instead of money), there needed to be that moment when the audience is convinced the plan is too crazy to work. (Think: The scene where Danny and Rusty explain the heist to their nine gape-mouthed co-conspirators.) Everything happens so easily for Mendez, Siegel and Chambers while in Hollywood, however, that the stakes almost lower. Of course the plan will work; they fooled Variety in five minutes, why wouldn’t they fool the Iranian Republican Guard?
In a lot of ways, “Argo” feels like Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” another third film from a budding auteur that throws a lot of balls in the air. It’s got a ton of great ideas and performances but, at times, it just spins out of control. Fortunately for Affleck, “Argo” works as a film in ways “Funny People” does not; even the saccharine final five minutes can’t ruin the last act. (“Argo” is truly one of the few films this year that deserved and received pre-credits applause.)
So, yeah: “Argo” is a very good movie, it’s just not a great movie. (“Argo fuck yourself” comments go here.)