Ben Affleck’s latest film is a decently crafted narrative, but in the end I was left wondering if it has truly been able to set itself apart from the majority of other Hollywood films.
Argo is set in 1979 Iran during the hostage crisis at the US embassy. Six Americans escape from the takeover and hide out in the Canadian ambassador’s house. Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA agent who decides to go to Iran, get the Americans to pose as a Canadian film crew, and smuggle them out of the country. The set up of this film is very well done. As Iranian protestors take over the US embassy, the film switches between Super16, 8mm, and 2-perf 35mm photography. The Super16 and 8mm is used to make the action look like found footage, and certainly looks quite convincing (I was convinced it actually was found footage). The 35mm photography was used for the more narrative moments during the set up in order to switch the audience back into ‘movie’ mode.
After this elaborate and exciting set-up, the film begins to get a little more messy. While the editing and dialogue remains sharp and successful, the narrative plot points begin to fall into cliché territory. Towards the end there is almost nothing that sets this film apart from the numerous other Hollywood films in the same genre. In fact, much of it is very predictable, and many people already know how the heist ends because of the way it was celebrated throughout history. Of course, the fact that it’s based on a true story implies that all of these problems were built into the story to begin with, but much of these ‘historical’ films tend to blur the details in favor of keeping the tension and the narrative flow going. It is unclear if this is entirely the case here, but the film occasionally attempts to suspend the tension a bit beyond what’s natural, leading me to believe that the movie is writing in a bit more than what’s in the history books.
As the main actor, Affleck just didn’t grab me. He was relatively convincing as the quiet, expressionless CIA agent, but that was the extent of his character. He just isn’t strong enough to be the centerpiece of a feature film. Affleck’s directing, on the other hand, was solid. The film’s highlight is all of the other characters, especially the Hollywood people who help the CIA form a decent cover story. Even though Affleck’s character feels a bit stale, the other characters are believable and likable.
The film’s cinematography is a little all over the board. Some of it, especially the Iran footage, is beautifully grainy with nice, crunchy blacks and saturated color. Combining this aesthetic with a handheld camera really brings out the realism of these images. The rest of the film, particularly the footage shot in Hollywood, looks a bit too clean. While the Iranian footage was captured on 2-perf 35mm cameras, the rest of the film was shot on a combination of 4-perf anamorphic 35mm and Arri Alexa (digital) cameras. The difference is night and day. The anamorphic 35mm footage looks warm and organic, but far less grainy and textured, while the Alexa footage comes off far too harsh and clean, in my opinion. It simply cannot reproduce the same rich color pallet that the filmmakers had intended for those scenes.
Argo is a very enjoyable film. It is tense, especially in the opening scene, and holds one’s attention. However, it ends up being very predictable and ultimately hinges on a character that is simply not interesting enough to properly drive the film. The use of found footage, fake and real, is very successful. This and the 2-perf 35mm photography truly immerses the audience into Iran.
Art Direction: 10/10
“Film as Entertainment” Rating: 8/10
“Film as Art” Rating: 6/10