“Argo” (2012) is a Fun, not Quality, Entertainment


Argo Poster

I had a weird reaction as I watched “Argo” (2012). The longer the film went on, the more I became convinced that things didn’t go the way that events was depicted in the movie, but also the more I enjoyed the film. It brings to mind what I always say about reality, which is that reality is far too mundane to make into serviceable entertainment.

The film is based on true events that’s actually a very important story to tell. In 1979, after the American-backed Shah was overthrown, an angry mob of Iranians stormed the American embassy in Tehran and held the Americans there hostage. This is a pretty well-known story, but what has been less told is that six members of the embassy escaped before the Iranians occupied the embassy and obtained refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador. Knowing that these six will be captured and killed if they were ever discovered by the Iranians, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) of the CIA hatches up a plan to bring them out by pretending that the six are Canadian filmmakers who came into the country to scout locations for their new science fiction movie to be titled “Argo.”

The film really separates into two parts. In the first half, Mendez goes to Hollywood to set up the ruse. He enlists the help of a make-up artist, John Chambers (John Goodman), with whom he’s previously cooperated in a covert operation, and they together find an established director, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), to helm the non-movie, buy a script which will be made into the non-movie, and establish the office of the fake production company in Hollywood, called Studio 6, so the whole operation can withstand the scrutiny of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

This first half is not the strong part of the film, mostly because it lacks a sense of urgency. The team in the United States keeps on talking about how the six need to get out as soon as possible, but the characters fail to adequately convey the danger that the six are facing and lack conviction.

Part of the problem is the tone of Goodman and Arkin, which seems all wrong in light of the subject matter. I get that the filmmakers were trying to convey the cavalier Hollywood culture, but their comedic ways seem tone deaf when their mission involves the lives of six Americans who may be facing imminent death. Their depiction may have worked if the movie was fully committed to showing how Mendez and the CIA set-up the ruse because that would have placed these characters in the context of a large project in which their role was to provide comedic relief. Instead, we only see the three set up a production company, print a poster, and hire a couple actors to hold a press conference in which the cast read through the script. Such cursory overview doesn’t provide enough depth to justify the comedic tone of Goodman and Arkin.

The film improves once Mendez flies to Iran to make contact with the six to get them out, if only because the film picks up the pace and heightens the anxiety. Affleck has much improved as an actor during the last decade, and here, he does a good job of depicting Mendez, who is scrambling to convince the six that this is the only way out, to train the six so they can become believable filmmaking crew and to obtain a filming permit from the Iranian government, all before the Iranian Revolutionary Guard puts together the shredded paper in the embassy and figure out there are six Americans hiding in the city somewhere.

Affleck is trying to carve out a new career as a director, but his direction is less noteworthy than his acting. He should take cue from George Clooney (who, along with Affleck and Grant Heslove, produced the movie), who exhibited a nice sense of subtle storytelling in “Ides of March” (2011). As much as the first half of the film could have used the urgency of the second half, everything that added to the heightened urgency in the second half seems manufactured rather than natural.

On this front, Affleck was not helped by Chris Terrino’s screenplay, which takes great liberties in creating several close calls from which the six escape in a manner of minutes, if not seconds. Both the need for a last-minute presidential authority to proceed with the rescue plan and the final escape at the Tehran airport seriously strains plausibility.

I suppose such scenes are appropriate–and even necessary, as the first half showed–in an action-thriller, which is what “Argo” ultimately is. The film isn’t much more than that. It doesn’t work as a drama because the film has no interest in developing the individual characters of the six being rescued. Nor does it work as an intellectual thriller, because it has no interest in delving into the CIA intelligence that went into executing the entire operation. It’s a fun two-hour entertainment on a Friday night at a theatre, but it’s hardly Academy Award material. If “Argo” is the standard for an action flick to be recognized as quality cinema, “Die Hard” (1988) should have swept the 1988 Oscars.


4 Responses to ““Argo” (2012) is a Fun, not Quality, Entertainment”

  1. 1 jon March 11, 2013 at 11:59 am

    Just wanted to say this was spot on. I agree. I enjoyed the movie, enjoyed knowing about the story, but I was surprised it would win best picture as it was just a cool story based on real life. For some reason in my mind I kept comparing this to Apollo 13. Also a film about narrow escapes based on real life but I felt after that movie that it was done exactly like in real life, that I cared about all the characters, that I knew the characters, and that I understood the intricacies of how the crew was saved. I didn’t really get that here, and I dont’ even think Apollo 13 was best picture worthy either. Anyway, a cool film and I enjoyed watching it nonetheless :)

    • 2 joesas March 20, 2013 at 3:54 am

      Hey Jon! Thanks for commenting!

      You know, I never thought about Apollo 13 but I agree with you completely, it makes a perfect contrast to “Argo” and how the movie like this can be done very well. I should see that film again…

  2. 3 Jay the Elitist March 13, 2013 at 3:43 am

    Nice review! I agree with you! It gives me great pain when I do!

    • 4 joesas March 19, 2013 at 10:29 am

      LOL! Come on, now, you mostly agree with my movie reviews and quibble only over details!

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