Adapting stories based on historical events is always a tricky endeavor; do you sacrifice the authenticity of the history in order to make the story more compelling? Or do you vehemently stick to the facts? The best historical adaptations, such as Schindler’s List and All The Presidents Men, manage to find a deft balance between the two by telling a story that is engaging and factual without embellishing too much of the history. Argo, Ben Affleck’s third feature film after hits Gone Baby Gone and The Town, satisfactorily achieves this balance and tells a compelling historical story thanks to Affleck’s stellar direction. However, it is missing one essential component that holds it back from reaching the greatness it’s so close to achieving: an emotional core. While Affleck’s Argo is an expertly crafted and highly entertaining international thriller, it’s far too superficial and it’s straightforward to a fault.
Based of an incredible true story, Argo follows CIA agent Antonio “Tony” Mendez (Ben Affleck) as he spearheads a top-secret mission to rescue six Americans who managed to escape the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979 by finding refuge at the Canadian Embassy. When conventional methods fail, Mendez turns to Hollywood to form a believable cover and recruits legendary makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (a hilarious, scene stealing Alan Arkin) to help him create a fake science-fiction movie, entitled Argo, that will act as their guise to enter the country and leave with the six Americans who will all pose as members of the film crew scouting locations in Iran.
When it comes down it, nothing in filmmaking is more important than characters, and though some may argue that a good plot is more crucial, without any relatable and/or dimensional characters the audience will never have any stake in the story, no matter how good or thrilling it all is. When you have one-dimensional characters, no solid emotional connections can really be formed and you end up caring less about who lives, who dies, and who will be where come the conclusion of the story. Unfortunately, this is Argo’s biggest fault, and rather than spending ample time introducing us to the characters and their trials and tribulations, the movie jumps head first into the plot and uses only its story to obtain forward momentum. At the least, you would hope that the film would take its time and flesh out its main character’s personality, but instead we are only given one or two defining traits about Mendez to chew on: the first that he is having marital problems, and the second that he is good at getting people out of sticky situations. He literally says at one point, “This is what I do! I get people out!” The script gives him little to no room to breathe, choosing to focus on the plot, which is fiercely entertaining on its own, rather than further develop his character.
However, Mendez’s character development is immense compared to that of the six American hostages. Throughout the movie, we are intermittently given brief looks into the struggles that the six Americans are facing as they hide out in the Canadian Embassy in Iran and face the pressures of isolation as they desperately search for a way home. Unfortunately, none of the Americans are given any depth to make us care about them and they end up being characters who merely serve as a face for Mendez’s mission. The only aspects of their characters are awkwardly spelled out in an exposition filled scene detailing who the six Americans are, but the scene is too quick for any of the information to make much of an impact.
While the faults of the movie may lie in the screenplay, the same cannot be said for the direction and cinematography. Even after two excellent movies, a lot of people still doubt Ben Affleck’s ability as a director and view him as the washed up actor and star of duds like Gigli and Jersey Girl. However, Argo should finally put these naysayers to rest. Even if the script is lacking in some aspects, Affleck manages to make the most out of it and creates a surprisingly solid political thriller. His most impressive feat is the amount of tension he is able to create around a story where we already know the ending. For the most part, everybody knows that the operation is successful, it’s history, not a spoiler. While we may not know the true details of the story, we know the six Americans make it home, and herein lies the problem most fact based movies face and usually fail to overcome. How do you create tension when your audience knows the ending? Well, all future historical dramas should look to Argo, because Affleck manages to create a few key scenes that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Even though there isn’t much at stake for the audience, Affleck’s intercutting and pacing help inflate the movie with some much-needed tension. The opening scene, for instance, in which the Iranian militia and angry rioters overrun the U.S. Embassy, is a real standout as Affleck manages to make you feel as if you are in the actual Embassy frantically trying to destroy important information and awaiting your inevitable capture. It’s an extremely tense beginning that really draws you through the frantic editing and the extensive use of shaky-camera movements.
While Affleck’s direction is as strong as its ever been here, hopefully this is a blip in his career because the movie lacks the personal touch of his that was so prevalent in Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Many might attribute this to the lack of a Boston setting, but I believe it has more to do with his lack of participation in the writing of Argo. Both of his previous movies felt like he had a personal connection to the story, as if he took stories from his own life and threw them up and recreated them on film. Conversely, Argo lacks this connection and therefore feels almost artificial. While it’s based on true events, it feels too clean at times and lacks the gritty, down to earth feeling of his previous movies.
While the positives of Argo far outweigh the negatives, its lack of depth holds it back from achieving the greatness it’s on the precipice of. Don’t get me wrong, Argo is a taunt political thriller and well worth your time and money, but had Affleck focused more on the characters of the story and less on plot, Argo could’ve truly been something special (perhaps a bold statement on international relations during times of strife or the lengths a country will go to in order to protect its citizens) and well deserving of all the Oscar-buzz it’s currently getting. Still, Argo succeeds off of Affleck’s assured direction and, ultimately, is a standard, well-made political thriller.
Review by James Hausman