Oct 4, 2012

REVIEW: Argo (dir. Affleck)

"The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture" wrote Roger Ebert in Toronto, " will be Ben Affleck's tense new thriller Argo. How do I know this?" I don't know. Because you are stuck in 1975 and think you have just walked out of a screening of 3 Days of the Condor? Affleck's Argo is good, not great, certainly no Best Picture winner, and nowhere near as good as The Town, which was powered along by a crackajack performance from Jeremy Renner.  Affleck's direction has come on in just about every department — his framing, his pacing, his editing — but his casting has gone straight into a ditch. Argo may be the most unimaginatively cast movie of the year.  Every performance is a golden oldie, wheeled out one more time for good measure: Alan Arkin as the scabrous, loose-tongued movie producer ("If I'm going to make a fake movie, I'm going make a fake hit"), Bryan Cranston as the dutiful CIA sidekick, John Goodman as the dudiesh Mr Fixit who shows up in act II, his head so wacked it actually makes perfect sense in this wack-a-doodle world (He's turning in the same performance again in Robert Zemeckis's Flight, next month. Will Academy Members be able to remember which wack-a-doodle world he fixed best?). Most boringly of all, we have Affleck himself as the hero of the tale, Tony Menendez, the CIA extractor entrusted with smuggling five hostages out of Iran, not hidden under his shagpile-rug haircut, as you might think, but posing as members of a film crew making a Star-Wars rip-off called Argo, complete with furry aliens and nubile princesses. The Hollywood satire is flimsy and outsiderish, as if nobody thought it a good idea to burden us with anything too fresh. The stuff in Iran feels much more credibly researched, and  the ending is a nail-biter. If only he'd cast a big hot mess in the lead — someone barely holding it together like Downey, or Cage, or even Crowe, someone rugged and bearish to put a bit more fear into those hostages. Instead, Affleck plays it as rock-solid and reassuring as he can, taking his intonation down Cloonishly low to intimate geopolitical gravitas, and saying things like "I've never left anyone behind," but I've never really bought him as a hero. More importantly neither has he. He always looks guilty and shiftless, like a man who has been told he is too clumsy by his wife, and is  just seconds from bolting. Maybe it's those low-lidded eyes, or that loping gate — he always moves across the screen like someone who has grown 10 inches in his sleep and is still getting used to his new, enlarged dimensions. He is at his best when asked to play sunken, recessive men in films like Hollywoodland and Changing Lanes, but ask him to play the hero and he seems agonisingly self-conscious, as if deflecting bad reviews in his head. He may lack the shamelessness of the true leading men, like Douglas or Lancaster, or any of  those Golden Age cockatoos and preeners. But the film pulls through in the end, working up a nice sweat in the final stretch, and allowing  liberals like myself a rare opportunity to stand on our seats, check no-one is watching and deliver a tentative air-punch for Freedom! President Carter! Canada!  B


  1. Ah, but see, it's precisely the safe blandness of the movie - middling history, middling satire - that is its trump card. Some of us find Ang Lee a little too blandly safe as well - in a relatively adventurous arthouse kind of way - and "Pi" could pull it off. But Affleck is a Hollywood golden boy, and this is his successful foray into Ron Howard moviemaking, so I predict Ben wins.

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