Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Argo and the textures of the past

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The most interesting moment in Ben Affleck’s Argo comes at the very end, during the closing credits, which juxtapose still photographs of the real people and events depicted in the film with their fictional equivalents. It’s a nice reminder of the story’s historical origins, but it’s also an excuse to show off, as the movie indulges in some well-deserved self-congratulation about its meticulous reconstruction of the recent past. The most likable thing about Argo is its attention to texture and cultural detail, from the vintage Warner Bros. logo that opens the movie to its abundance of bad haircuts and floppy mustaches. And although the movie has been gently criticized for its departures from the facts—its version of the final flight to safety of the six hostages in Iran is almost entirely invented—there’s no doubt that this is a movie that takes genuine pleasure in certain kinds of authenticity, even if it’s only skin deep. (A film like The Master, by contrast, is authentic all the way to the bone.)

And part of me almost wishes that Affleck and his collaborators had invented just a little more. Argo is a nice, entertaining movie based on an inherently fascinating historical event, but it rarely tries to create anything like real human drama. The six hostages in Iran never emerge as anything more than background characters, and this is a big problem: we’re concerned for their safety, but more as a matter of principle than because we’ve come to know and like them as individuals. Affleck’s character, based on the real CIA operative Tony Mendez, is a stock, somewhat colorless type, and I smiled at his introduction, which shows him collapsed in bed, still wearing his clothes from the night before, before being awakened by a phone call alerting him to a new assignment—a situation familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Bruce Willis movie. The most interesting character by far is John Chambers, the legendary makeup artist, played by John Goodman, who helps Mendez construct a fake movie production as part of an elaborate escape plan, and Argo might have been an even better movie with him as the lead—the real Chambers deserves it.

Watching Argo, I was consistently interested by what was on the screen, but I couldn’t help feeling that the real story was taking place elsewhere, with resonances that the movie teases out only occasionally. Movies like this deserve to be judged based on the best of their genre, and the real comparison here is to Michael Mann’s The Insider, a movie that I loved when it first came out and which has only grown in my estimation since. It’s forty minutes longer than Argo, but it uses that time to develop unforgettable supporting characters and evoke times and places beyond mere surface detail, and it still manages to move like a shot—it’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that seems substantially shorter than its actual runtime. It also involves us in a multitude of worlds—journalism, law, the tobacco business—with their own sets of rules, and by the end, we feel as if we know them intimately. Argo would have benefited from more of this kind of specificity: it gets the clothes, the hair, the typefaces exactly right, but we’re still left with less than we’d like to know about Iran, Hollywood, or the CIA.

And there’s another world here that I wish had been explored more deeply: the universe of the fictional Argo itself. Affleck dismisses the fake movie at the story’s heart as a bad rip-off of Star Wars, but in fact, it was an ambitious project based on a novel by Roger Zelazny, with Jack Kirby contributing some of the designs. The contrast between the promises of science fiction and the messy, complicated reality of the Iran hostage crisis is one that the movie only superficially develops, to its own loss: the idea of a little boy with Star Wars bedsheets watching footage from Tehran is an astonishing one, and it reminds us that there was a larger world beyond the line outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Argo’s closing shots, as text describing the aftermath of the crisis is set over figurines of C-3PO and Luke Skywalker, are brilliant, and hint at a vein of material that the film seems only intermittently interested in investigating. The way movies interact with the world around them is endlessly mysterious, but here, we only glimpse it at intervals, through the cracks in the story’s more conventional suspense. And perhaps it only testifies to the richness of the film’s underlying material that it leaves us wanting more.

Written by nevalalee

October 22, 2012 at 9:52 am

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