Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
Throughout the years, and especially recently, the Academy Awards have taken criticism for being self-congratulatory. A glittering gala, held for the richest people in the film industry, where they give each other golden statues for achievements. While I find this an overly cynical view of the Oscars (and of awards shows in general), I can see where the sentiment comes from, especially when class-warfare language has become so prevalent. This year, the Academy seems either unaware or unconcerned with this criticism, giving the Best Picture award to a movie about how Hollywood rescued Iranian hostages. Directed by Hollywood Insider (and Oscar winner) Ben Affleck and produced by Hollywood Insider (and Oscar winner) George Clooney.
I need to start out by saying that I don’t think Argo is a bad movie. I think it’s decent. It’s got some good action sequences, it’s got an interesting real life story, and there is some genuinely funny dialogue. The plot, for those who have been living under a rock, is about a CIA operative who impersonates a film producer to get into 1980 Iran and rescue escapees from the besieged American embassy. By impersonating a Canadian film crew, CIA operative Tony Menendez (Affleck) was able to sneak the escapees out of Iran and safely back to the United States. It was a daring plan, and the setting of the Iran hostage crisis is a fascinating one.
One of the things that keeps this from being a great movie (one that can stand alongside fellow winners like The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia) is a lack of depth. We understand that these escapees are innocent, and that we don’t want them to die. But there isn’t much to them beyond that. With the exception of one couple, the Staffords, we’re not given a lot of development for these characters. Not to mention the static quality of Affleck’s character, a man with no flaws has no change in the movie. He’s right and justified at the beginning, right and justified at the end. There’s a tacked-on development about his estranged son that is given so little screen time, and such an obvious afterthought, that it might as well have been expurgated entirely. The film relies entirely on its plot to get it through. The plot only gets it so far – it feels a lot like a TV movie of a “stranger than fiction” story.
I can’t be too upset about this; 2012 was, in my opinion, a pretty weak Oscar year, with few films that I’d look forward to seeing again. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the year’s best is one I find merely OK. Still, even in the other nominees we find a deeper tale of political intrigue with Zero Dark Thirty, and a much more imaginative and engaging story in Beasts of the Southern Wild. But as usual, one can expect some Hollywood politics at work behind the decisions. Zero Dark Thirty had drawn a great deal of fire from politicians over its implications about torture. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (which, despite critical praise, only garnered acting nominations) was seen to portray scientology in a negative light. Beasts of the Southern Wild is the feature film debut of writer/director Benh Zeitlin, and we all know you can’t give an Oscar to someone their first time around. Argo, on the other hand, is helmed by Hollywood royalty, has a nice happy story, and doesn’t offend anyone (except Iranians, who are planning their own counter-film, The General Staff).
Argo isn’t a bad film, but it has enough flaws to keep it from being a great film. In addition, there were other films this year (in my humble opinion) that were more deserving of the epithet “Best Picture.” Perhaps after last year’s departure from form – a silent, French, black and white winner – we’re back to business as usual. Although, the uniting factor in the two (besides John Goodman) is that they are both movies about Hollywood. And the last time a movie about Hollywood was nominated but lost was in 1950 with Sunset Boulevard. It lost to All About Eve, another movie about Hollywood.