by Matt J. Popham
[Originally published in conjunction with St. David’s Jubilee Center summer film series.]
Ben Affleck’s Argo is a diverting piece of 70’s revivalism that effectively captures the aesthetic of that esteemed cinematic decade, but ultimately fails to channel its passion or spirit. Based on actual events, the film recounts a CIA operation in which six diplomats were rescued from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis by disguising them as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for an upcoming science fiction film. Its split narrative alternates between the diplomats, who have taken refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), and CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Affleck, himself), who hatches and executes the rescue plan. Adopting a gritty visual style reminiscent of classic 70’s thrillers like Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View, Affleck – in his third and most assured directorial effort – keeps the pacing tight, the tension high, and, like so many actors turned directors, elicits strong performances from his ensemble cast. He even capably exploits the comedy inherent in the film’s premise, without puncturing the drama or suspense. But though well-crafted and consistently enjoyable, Argo also instructively illustrates the limitations of Hollywood’s overdetermined focus on “story” and the pitfalls of reverent imitation. Affleck tells a good tale and tells it well, but the films he is emulating were charged with an immediacy, an innovative energy, and a personal investment that Argo lacks. It might look rough and daring, but it can’t hide its Hollywood polish, or its want of any kind of cohesive and compelling artistic vision. Though certainly not the worst film ever to win a Best Picture Oscar, Argo is solid enough, but it’s not the sort of electrifying entertainment or affecting work of art you’ll find yourself rhapsodizing about days later. Which wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t so badly want to be.