Bazaar Wars: Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012) – Blu-ray review
No complaints here on the Oscar win. It has the big themes of yesteryear’s Best Pictures, but the nimble, unpretentious rush as other recent winners.
(Ben Affleck, 2012)
Best Picture winners have definitely got better since the low period of the early Noughties. A Beautiful Mind? Chicago? Crash? Never mind posterity: these looked like bad bets at the time. But things have got a lot more interesting, and Ben Affleck’s Argo completes a nearly uninterrupted run in recent years – we’ll overlook The King’s Speech – of choosing smart, light-on-its-feet entertainment over dusty, self-conscious prestige pieces.
For sure, Argo has its flaws: a triumphant, punch-the-air sense of American patriotism; an enthusiastic endorsement of the CIA (on the Blu-ray extras, director/star Affleck delights in being able to shoot at Langley); and a distinct lack of nuance in its depiction of rabid Islamic revolutionaries. There’s nothing particularly radical about the subtext; indeed, it sometimes feels like a straight version of Team America’s satirical plot about recruiting spies from the world of entertainment.
Instead, the joy lies in the cinematic verve of its depiction: at once a nail-biting thriller, a Hollywood comedy, and the breathlessly delighted reveal of a largely unknown piece of history. That ambitious but lightly-worn tone is down to Affleck, who is proving quite the find. As a director, he’s three for three, as consistently good as he was consistently bad as a movie star in the early 2000s. No second acts in American life? Affleck has made a film that is practically a rebuke to the shallow cynicism of his past life. Gigli? As the film’s catchphrase puts it, Argo fuck yourself. While Affleck’s talent is not entirely a surprise, given the breakthrough of Good Will Hunting, it’s proof that in Hollywood talent must be nurtured or it’ll quickly atrophy.
In a way, the Hollywood connection is the most interesting element of Argo, as screenwriter Chris Terrio mines the metaphorical links between the make-belief of movie-making and the exaggerations of espionage. Just as the Hollywood of the late 1970s was learning to dream a little bigger thanks to Star Wars, so the success of operation Argo – the exfiltration of six diplomats from Tehran at the outset of the Revolution – relies on finding the biggest lie possible, so outlandish it shouldn’t be possible. But it’s all in the details, and Terrio latches on the fact that the CIA’s partner in Tinseltown, the legendary John Chambers, was a maker of prosthetics… because, after all, what else is a cover story but a mask?
This irony ripples throughout the film and beyond. The copious extras on the disc try really hard to sell the film’s basis in reality, with Affleck namedropping the Middle Eastern studies he did in college, and every major player – including the then-POTUS Jimmy Carter! – reflecting on what happened. And yet, the most telling detail is that, just as the CIA was pretending to turn Tehran into outer space, so the Tehran we see on-screen was filmed in Instanbul. It’s all artifice, really, which is why it’s such a joy that the film begins with the Proustian rush of using a genuine 1970s Warner Brothers logo, daring to pretend that Argo is some long-lost classic from that era.
In other words, this is Affleck playing at being a Movie Brat auteur and inching a little bit closer to matching that level of quality. By all means, check out Wikipedia in order to rip the film’s accuracy to shreds, but bear in mind Argo isn’t really about political history but movie history, and on that basis Affleck passes with distinction. The old-school, pre-CGI stylings are stunningly well done: the Pakula-esque paranoia of character actors shouting at each other across cigarette smoke-wreathed rooms; the tactile editing that knows how long to hold a fidgety close-up of a panicked face; the Jack Nicholson-level inventiveness of insults (“brace yourself, it’s like talking to those two old fucks from The Muppets”). At one point, Chambers tells Mendez that you can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day, but Argo belies that advice that showing how much quality influence Affleck has soaked up since heading behind the camera.