Argo – Why it’s NOT the Best Picture

by Tony Shea on January 10, 2013


1/13/13 Well, I’m certainly wrong so far. Argo took best Drama at the Golden Globes tonight. Let’s see what happens at the Oscars. TS

Argo 1Argo has been receiving a slew of award nominations lately, including this morning’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture, along with Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Les Miserable, Life of PI, Amour, and Django Unchained.

Argo is set against the backdrop of the 1979 American Embassy takeover in Iran, the hostage crisis that would become a major issue in the election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The plot revolves not around the hostages who were captured, but rather the six embassy employees who managed to escape, seeking shelter in the Canadian ambassador’s home, until they are rescued by CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck.

Basically, once the six embassy employees are entrenched at the ambassador’s house, a plot is hatched by the CIA to rescue them. The plan: Mendez will go to Iran and lead the “Houseguests” out through the Tehran airport in broad daylight, pretending ostensibly to be members of a film crew that have been in Iran scouting futuristic desert locations like the kind used in Planet of the Apes. To make the cover believable, Mendez goes to Hollywood, recruits a real producer, buys a script–the lousy science fiction film ARGO, sets up a real production office, publicizes the film’s pending production in the trade papers, and draws up elaborate fake back stories for the “Houseguests,” who like actors, will need to learn to play their parts if the plan is going to work–this is the sort of little inside joke that Hollywood enjoys.

Argo then unfolds as a procedural, as the various decision makers within the CIA communicate with the people on the ground, and Mendez leads the pack of frightened embassy workers through streets of Tehran that are boiling with religious and political hatred, and through the airport with their fake passports up up and away, popping the corks from bottles of champagne.

I don’t feel bad telling you this. Since it is a true story, everybody already knows this. Now, to the film’s credit, even though you know that the embassy workers escaped unharmed, there are moments of tremendous suspense as you root for them to make it out alive.

Affleck, of course, also directs the film. And he does an excellent job. I think Argo would be a solid addition to almost anyone’s resume, but it’s not the Best Picture. Affleck’s two previous directorial efforts, Gone Baby Gone and The Town also racked up numerous award nominations, including Oscar nominations for Amy Ryan and Jeremey Renner in the supporting actress and actor categories, respectively. However, neither was quite Oscar ready, and nor is Argo.

While Argo is certainly a well made film with moments of great tension, ultimately the film feels like a magic trick to me, a cinematic sleight of hand, where the drama is manufactured. At the end, like when the magician holds up the Six of Clubs and asks if this is your card, you’re momentarily amused, but you don’t care, really.

Part of the cheap trick is that we’re rooting for the embassy workers because we have to. We know little about them: name, age, marital status that are read off in a perfunctory let’s-meet-the-main-characters sort of way, and that’s it. We’re supposed to root for them because they are on the home team, the good Americans vs. the enemy we have been seeing a lot of since 9/11, the militant Islamists. However, one suspects the Iranians have good reason to be angry, considering their apparent woes at the hands of the Shah who was installed in power by the US Government, and who ruled for thirty years, but this is masked by a sort of mandatory patriotism, like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I suggest the film would have been more interesting had it been a fictionalized world involving two other participants rather than the US and Iran, Iceland and Libera for example, so that we might have more fully engaged with the emotional or spiritual turmoil of the characters, rather than the procedural elements and political maneuvers at play.

For me, Argo being an American escape story calls up the psychic weight of the countless number of films over the last ten years where the Middle East is the enemy. In real life, the Middle East may very well be the enemy, but it’s getting boring to watch on screen. It doesn’t feel like any new information can be added, like everything that could be said has been said, but still the topic is being drilled for any nuggets that might remain. Since Argo is a period piece depicting 30 years ago, it represents an attempt to frame our current enemy in slightly different clothes–same old enemy, new and improved– while also strengthening our beliefs about the enemy–we’ve hated the Middle East since the 70’s it reminds us, we’ve hated them our whole lives.

Another slight of hand is that the “Houseguests” are briefly inter-cut with some of the other embassy workers, who were actually captured, as they are mock executed in a dungeon with hoods over their heads, collapsing to the ground in terror. The juxtaposition of the images is supposed to let us know that one situation can lead to other, that one situation is as serious as the other, but that’s simply not true.

While the “Houseguests” are rightfully anxious about getting apprehended, we must also remember that they basically just strolled out the back door of the embassy and then stayed at the Canadian Ambassador’s mansion in Tehran for two months with nothing to do but drink good scotch and smoke cigarettes and listen to Led Zeppelin records with their friends. They have parties. And included among them are two couples, no less, who are free, presumably, to have sex. No bills to pay. No job to go to. It almost seems fun. And then a soft spoken man from the CIA, who does this thing for a living, shows up and basically takes them to the airport like some kind of spy game chauffeur. This seems infinitely preferable to being tortured in some basement. Since the “Houseguests” are only minimally involved in the process of their own escape, more along for the ride as passengers, Affleck cheats the drama, injecting it on screen where it might not otherwise be–a phone call is barely answered in the nick of time, by John Goodman, playing the role of John Chambers, a Hollywood make-up artist, after he has to push his way past….a Production Assistant with a walkie talkie! The gear shift of the bus that will take the “Houseguests” to their getaway plan… jams!

I think Affleck is well on the way to be an outstanding director, and I imagine he will be collecting a variety of Oscars as the years go on, but Argo feels to me like a good illusion. At first you are impressed, but then you see the rabbit sitting there in a pouch sewn inside the top hat. Maybe the next one will be the real magic.

Tony Shea ( Editor-in-Chief, New York)

Tony Shea is based in New York, having recently moved from Los Angeles after more than a decade on the sunny coast. His short films have won numerous awards and screened at major festivals around the world including Comic-Con. As a musician, he is the lead singer for Los Angeles rock n’ roll band Candygram For Mongo (C4M) who has been a featured artist on Clear Channel Radio’s Discover New Music Program and whose songs have been heard on Battlestar Gallactica (Syfy Channel) and Unhitched (Fox) among other shows and films.

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