Monday, October 15, 2012
Ben Affleck's "Argo" gets 4 stars the same way Barack Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize a few years ago: for future promise as much as for current accomplishment. To be sure, "Argo" is a terrific movie, a crowd-pleaser that seems to please every single person in the crowd. (It received an average CinemaScore grade of A+). It might well win the Oscar for, inter alia, Best Picture. But it's not perfect.
It is said that no bad movie is too short and no good movie is too long. At two hours, "Argo" could have used another thirty or forty minutes to flesh out Affleck's Tony Mendez, as well as the six American embassy employees whom Mendez attempts to exfiltrate from Tehran. We know very little about any of these characters. That keeps the movie fast-paced and perhaps enhances the helter-skelter confusion of those days in 1979, but I don't think anything would have been lost by filling in their back stories, and it might have made "Argo" a great film.
Still, let's appreciate Afflec's achievement. After making his directorial debut with the promising but not particularly memorable "Gone Baby Gone," Affleck delivered "The Town," like "Argo" a consummate entertainment, deeply knowledgeable of its subject matter, smart and focused. (Rebecca Hall and Jeremy Renner turned in stronger performances than anyone is called upon to give here.) It made the low end of my top-ten list in 2010. "Argo" will likely finish higher. Affleck's juggling act (including half a dozen interwoven plot strands and a reported 250 speaking parts) is worthy of any directing luminary.
Some movies have something for everybody. "Argo" has a little of everything for everybody. It's got action, behind-the-scenes diplomatic and intelligence-agency intrigue, a generous dose of humor (provided by the reliable John Goodman and Alan Arkin, an overrated actor but one perfectly suited for the broad, Borscht-belt laughs on offer here), and tremendous suspense, culminating in that rare movie scene that literally keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.
I also want to talk about the look of the movie. It will be a crime if "Argo" does not take home the Academy Award for Peter Borck's and Deniz Gokturk's art direction and Jan Pascale's set decoration. They have captured the look and feel of the period in minute detail, down to the primitive computerization of the monitors at the airport gates. There are no 555 phone numbers in "Argo," no artificiality to take you out of this unique and harrowing circumstance.
How lucky for us that Affleck is so young and has many more years to turn out mass-appeal films of this quality.