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“Argo” Backfires as Campaign Ad, Misfires as Film

The trouble with the best picture Oscar winner.

I finally got around to seeing “Argo” earlier this week, and was astounded at how thoroughly it failed (in my view) to measure up to the considerable hype. I’d been fairly warned not to expect much from Affleck’s performance, but his flatness was only part of the problem. What, ultimately, is this movie about?

In case you haven’t heard, “Argo” is a “thriller” about the successful exfiltration of six embassy staff from Iran during the hostage crisis. The six escape the American embassy just before the Iranian mob bursts in, and flee to the Canadian ambassador’s residence, where they wait for weeks for somebody to do something to get them out of there. The CIA cavalry (Ben Affleck) comes to the rescue just in time, as the Iranian authorities are busily putting the pieces together necessary to discover and then find the missing six, which would undoubtedly mean their heads on pikes. But the cavalry comes on a pretty strange horse: a plan to sneak the staffers out disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting possible locations for a “Star Wars” knockoff. “Best bad idea” though it is, it turns out to be good enough, and home we go.

I put “thriller” in quotes because there aren’t many thrills to be had. Affleck (the director) goes instead for precisely modulated tension, which is more rewarding but tougher to achieve. Our heroes don’t generally have to do anything clever in response to obstacles thrown at them – instead, they get through basically by brazening it out and not giving up.

This should have been fine for me. I prefer a realistic approach to the bloated action of a typical thriller. In fact, I don’t tend to watch many thrillers, preferring character-driven pieces. But there wasn’t much in the way of character development either.

There’s no real internal conflict within Affleck’s CIA operative. There’s no real conflict between him and his bosses – except briefly, when they try to call the operation off, and he goes ahead anyway. There’s no real conflict between the Canadians and the Americans, or between the American staffers in hiding. There’s a bit of conflict between Affleck and one of the staffers – and, of course, the staffer who doesn’t trust Affleck winds up saving the day at the last minute by sweet-talking the Revolutionary Guard officer at the airport in Farsi – but that conflict is limited to “I don’t trust you;” it doesn’t go any further or have any ramifications. Affleck has some kind of conflict with his wife – when we meet him, he’s “taking time out” from his marriage, and at the end he returns to her – but we don’t know what the conflict is or how it’s resolved.

The Hollywood scenes could have been an opportunity for conflict between Affleck and himself, or between Affleck and the Hollywood people, but nothing of the sort materializes, and any satire of Hollywood is extremely tame. We don’t even really get a sense of whether Affleck is titillated, amused, impatient in dealing with these people from outside his normal sphere.

There isn’t even any real conflict between America and Iran. We see period clips of Americans furious at the hostage-taking, and we see Iranians furious at America’s historic support for the oppressive Pahlavi regime, but none of the actual characters behave as if there is any reason for America and Iran to be in conflict. It’s just very unfortunate that we’re in this mess, and the Americans we see just want to find an honorable way out.

And that unobjectionable sentiment is what I ultimately concluded this movie is about. Affleck (as director) saw the opportunity to make a patriotic film essentially without enemies. The conflict with Iran isn’t the fault of anybody on screen, and nobody on screen defends the behavior of earlier American administrations that are implicitly blamed for creating the mess. It’s just an inherited problem, and we get to cheer these six escaping with their lives. It’s like “Apollo 13” with the Iranians playing the deadly vacuum of outer space.

And with no moon. And that’s the problem. I think Affleck avoided ginning up conflict between the staffers in hiding (the usual reason you lock people in a room together in a movie), avoided creating a “Die Hard”-style conflict and reconciliation between Affleck and the wife, avoided letting Hollywood satire take over the movie, etc. because he didn’t want these Hollywood tropes to distract from the serious heart of the movie. And I applaud him for that. But where is that heart? What is the larger context within which this drama plays out, and which gives the drama meaning?

This is a movie from 2012, so the larger context today is the American position in the Middle East. If you believe that this position is primarily the fruit of foolish or malign decisions by previous administrations, and that we basically need to judiciously extricate ourselves without getting ourselves killed, then this movie “works” as a metaphor. But the absence of a “moon” – of any sense of what the mission was that failed, and that we now need to extricate people from, which is part of how the movie avoids offending anyone – deprives that message of any emotional punch, and turns the movie into something more akin to a campaign ad.

How effective an ad is it? Well, I’ve argued in the past that the Obama Administration is just trying to surf the tides in the Middle East, and is under no illusions that it is in control (or could be in control) of events. And I agree with them in this. But it’s probably not ideal to use an incident from the Carter Administration to make a similar point.

In the end, I think Affleck made a mistake not directing this as an absurdist comedy with a serious edge, instead of playing it so straight. The comic potential in the premise is so obvious, I have to assume he saw that potential, but turned away from it. But what America really needs when we contemplate the mess we’re in isn’t inoffensive uplift, but a good laugh.



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