Argo is the cinematic equivalent of a baseball game. It moves along steadily, is exciting in moments, and the production crew intersperses the more mundane moments with personal interest snap-shots of the key players in an attempt to raise the stakes and keep the audience’s interest. The resulting movie is entertaining enough in the moment (especially when there are no better choices of things to watch). However, in a 162 game season, Argo is forgettable.
That Argo is plotted like a baseball game should come as no surprise given that noted baseball aficionado Ben Affleck both stars in and directs this movie. I enjoyed Affleck’s previous two directorial efforts (Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town) much more than any of his acting turns. I always find Affleck the actor to be flat at best and annoying at worst. In The Town, his flat performance was buoyed by a strong supporting cast, including most notably a terrifying Jeremy Renner. In Argo, Affleck’s flat performance becomes an uninteresting sink at the center of a host of other underdeveloped characters. If you’re not into Argo for the action of the plot, you’re not going to be in it at all.
I was in it as long as I felt like I was being told a true story. Because the outcome is well-known, the interesting part for me is watching the procedure. When the movie sacrifices procedure in favor of extra, false obstacles put in the way of our protagonists for the sake of creating tension, I started noticing the manipulation more than the movie and lost interest.
Integral to this story is the idea that America contributed to the conflict that resulted in the 444 day Iranian Hostage crisis. Argo explains that the U.S. and Great Britain worked to depose a former Iranian leader who nationalized all oil interests and set up in his place a despot who gave the superpowers back their oil fields and stole from the Iranian people. The Iranian people revolt and overrun the U.S. Embassy, because the U.S. has given the Shah medical asylum. Ultimately, Argo argues, it’s the U.S.’s fault, and if we can’t extricate the hostages, we’ll likely go to war (or at least we probably would if someone as resolutely diplomatic as Jimmy Carter wasn’t President). In a brief scene, an Iranian man yells at one of the hostages that his son was killed with an American gun, driving home once again that America is largely to blame for this violence.
I found this all very affecting. Americans, like most nations’ citizens, are fond of thinking of themselves as heroic. It’s important to remember that we are as prone to greed and abuses of power as anyone else, perhaps more so actually, because we possess more things and have more power.
I also find it sad that we most often only tell ourselves two stories: 1) we’re to blame or 2) we’re the heroes. In my travels I’ve seen strong evidence for both sides. In Lesotho I was shown a gasoline-powered corn mill that was revolutionizing life for a small mountain village. The locals shook my hand and thanked me for this “gift from the American government.” In the Philippines I listened to remote, inner island church bands flawlessly mimic American praise and worship songs playing electric guitars and keyboards. I asked where the Filipino instruments and songs were, and I was told there weren’t any anymore. The Filipino people, after centuries of colonial rule, most recently by the Americans, had abandoned their traditional sounds in favor of those of their masters.
The truth, of course, is that the U.S. is neither always hero nor villain. Argo, to its credit, tries to walk that fine line between the two extremes, confessing our culpability but also highlighting our efforts to bring the conflict to a non-violent end. If only it had relied a bit more on this real tension rather than trying to create tension by massaging the story’s facts.
In closing, I would like to circle back around to Ben Affleck’s casting of himself in the lead role of Anthony Mendez. I realize that Affleck’s name on the marquee probably guarantees many millions more in revenue given his star status. However, as the credits rolled and the screen was filled with pictures of the actual people involved in the historical event, including the actual Tony Mendez, a long-time covert CIA agent who didn’t receive public acknowledgment of his work until this mission was declassified in 1997, I was disappointed that they didn’t cast one of cinema’s many talented Latino actors as Tony Mendez instead of Affleck.
I noticed this particularly because of my movie-going context. I saw Argo in a theater south of San Diego literally on the border between Mexico and the U.S. with an audience full of Hispanic American movie-goers. Casting a caucasian star simply because it will be more profitable is just another form of the colonialism Argo derides. If the movie was serious about its accusations of American complicity in cultural conflict, the filmmakers would have chosen to give cultural credit where it is due and feature a Latino in the lead. Perhaps being disallowed from doing this disheartened Affleck as well and led to his unenergetic performance.
In total, Argo is a distracting movie that nods toward real substance. Unfortunately it does little more than nod, and in the few ways it does delve a little deeper, it contradicts itself with its very form.