Argo has a fussy attention to detail. This is spelled out plainly in the credits, when several shots of the crowd from the movie are compared to actual photography of the rioters protesting around and climbing into the US Embassy. It’s actually pretty impressive; even several of the cast members are convincing dopplegangers for the absconding Americans they portray. Certainly the production should be admired for collecting these details to display a convincing 1970s Iran. Why then does the central character, a part Mexican CIA agent named Tony Mendez, get transformed into Ben Affleck? As with most unfortunate human beings, Tony does not share much similarity with Ben. There aren’t a lot of Mexican leading men and there’s a point to be made there, but what I’m alluding to isn’t the racial issue. Affleck acquits himself fine as an actor but the role itself is washed out of any traces of character in addition to race. This is doubtlessly a concession to the pace of this film, which clips along as an effective taught thriller. While this seems like high praise, I think that after the film you’re forced to realize that the adaption of this intrinsically interesting true story begins and ends with that phrase, “taught thriller,” written in big bold letters on the top of every page of the script. The movie is clever and entertaining but it is without a doubt engineered.
This is always a danger when trying to make a retro product. Much of the attention to production detail is clearly intended to provoke nostalgia for the time period, and this seems to be effective whether you were alive then or not. However most of these details (hair, clothes, music, and swinging attitudes) are cherry picked. We’re not given a clear idea of how things work or how people lived day to day. Apparently they napped a lot? There isn’t time for lived in details, just big cameras and 70s airline stewardess outfits. The same issue applies to the main protagonists and aggressors of the film. Affleck is a brief sketch, and each of the supporting characters in the States are basically comic relief. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are given a ringing plot point which is beyond droll and exists only to force them to stick around for the whole movie. The aggressors, a bevy of bureaucratic Iranians, are viewed by the film more as terrain than subjects to investigate. Only the hostages and their amusing hosts get a little time for fear, doubt, and musing. Finally, to assure you’re being taughtly thrilled, a number of questionable plot points come to a head at the end and Hollywood must save the day. These include the afore mentioned Checkov’s phone, CIA office rudder problems, and a Dukes of Hazard bit on tarmac.
Don’t get the wrong idea though, it all works. Argo is a good film with no particular problems. And it is exciting, even if it has been genetically enhanced. The setting is interesting, the dialogue is clever, and to my surprise the politics behind the Shah deposition and the Iranian revolution are treated very maturely, with an obvious shadow cast over the actions of the US and the CIA in Iran. But for me, Argo isn’t a great film. It is technical, careful, and smart but it doesn’t innovate or challenge. I enjoyed the ride and its quality forced me to consider it carefully, but afterwards it is hard to get past its artificiality.