Slowly but surely, Argo built up momentum that led it to winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, defeating expected favorites like Lincoln and 21 Jump Street. All this despite the fact that Ben Affleck wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, making Argo the first movie to win Best Picture without the director getting a nomination since 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy. Some questioned the movie and whether or not it deserved Best Picture, although to be fair that is true of every Best Picture winner to some degree. Regardless, it certainly shows that Affleck has come a long way since Gigli.
Argo is based on a true story, keying in on the word “based,” revolving around the hostage crisis in Iran back in the day. Six Americans were able to escape the American Embassy, and in the movie that hide out in the house of the Canadian Ambassador. Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA agent, who comes up with a plan to extract these six from Iran and get them home. His idea? Creating a fake sci-fi film, called Argo, and pretending that the six hidden Americans, and Mendez, are Canadians location scouting for the movie. As was pointed out many times when the film was being promoted, it’s the kind of story that would feel too far fetched if it wasn’t true.
The movie mostly shows Mendez creating the plan in America and then heading to Iran to make it work. Obviously, the stakes are quite high, and the film certainly does a strong job generating tension from that. Make no mistake, although Argo is based on a true story, it is very much a movie. It hits the beats of your typical thriller and feels like a piece of cinema. This is not a criticism. A well-made thriller is a well-made thriller, and Argo is not terribly concerned with verisimilitude. It doesn’t want to be a documentary, and in the abstract the movie did elide some facts in a questionable fashion, but as a film it still works.
Even knowing how things end up, Argo is an oft tense film. However, it is also at times quite a funny movie. In fact, most of the stuff that happens when Mendez visits Hollywood is more about show business satire. Some may feel that cramming a showbiz satire and a tense thriller together is a bit jarring, but it works here. Not that there aren’t issues with the movie. The six Americans are pretty one dimensional as characters, even when the movie tries to draw emotion out of them. In fact, none of these characters really have much depth. That doesn’t mean they are bad characters. In fact, John Goodman’s Hollywood makeup man is quite enjoyable. It just limits the ability of Argo to connect beyond a superficial level.
That being said, all the performances are fine, even if none of them really stick out save from Goodman. This includes Alan Arkin’s crotchety, washed-up film producer. Somehow, Arkin finagled a Best Supporting Actor nomination out of this role. It feels a bit strange. Maybe there weren’t enough good performances to fill all five slots. Maybe Arkin got a career-recognition nod. Or maybe the voters just really liked his performance. However, as film fans, are we allowed to just accept something like this as a difference of opinion?
As for Affleck’s directing, had he gotten a Best Director nomination it would have seemed justified. Affleck has shown he can direct a thriller, and his decisions helped raise the tension at the right moments. The movie was also given a '70s-thriller look, and it definitely nails that. However, to what end? It is just a look. It doesn’t really add anything of substance. It isn’t really a positive or a negative, but it does make Argo stick out.
Argo is a good movie. It takes a really, fairly wild, story and turns it into an occasionally intense, professional film. There’s some funny stuff and some tense moment and, yes, even some emotional resonance. The characters may not be terribly deep but this is still a movie about people facing potential death escaping to their freedom. It would be pretty hard to fail to make that to some degree work emotionally. However, the "best movie of 2012" designation is certainly arguable. That being said, 2012 feels like a year where no film really stands out. There were just a bunch of good movies made that are pretty much interchangeable in terms of rankings. If you like thrillers, or if you like Affleck’s other directing endeavors, then Argo is definitely worth a watch. Just don’t expect it to be much better than your typical above average thriller.