Very seldom do I ever actually watch Academy Award winning movies before they’ve received their Best Picture awards. This year was no exception.
I’m not exactly qualified to say if Argo should have won or not. I’ve now seen . . . ah . . . a whole two of the movies that were nominated for an Oscar this year. But I do think it’s a pretty damn good film.
CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) hatches a plan to enter Iran under the guise of making a movie, so that he can extract the six American citizens who are trapped and hiding out in the Canadian ambassador’s residence there.
1. Let’s just get this out of the way: I was not alive in 1980, and I am no great student of history, even relatively recent history and certainly not Middle Eastern history. I do, I’m ashamed to say, have a few failings. I DID read Persepolis many years ago, and I know at least half the lyrics to Billy Joel’s, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” including “Ayatollah’s in Iran/Russians in Afghanistan.” I vaguely knew there was some kind of hostage crisis, although not how big it was or how long it lasted. That . . . yeah, that was about the extent of my knowledge prior to seeing Argo.
Now that I’m armed with Wikipedia and a handful of other people’s reviews, I’m aware there have been some criticisms about historical inaccuracies, the majority of which seem to be centered around the fact that the CIA didn’t save these people quite as independently as Argo would have you believe. I can certainly understand why that would bother people, particularly if you’re from one of the countries that supposedly turned their back on the six Americans citizens. Or, for that matter, Canada. I might be a touch annoyed if I was Canadian.
However, since I’m American and have, by now, come to expect a little “Go us! We’re so awesome!” from my country . . . well, I guess I wasn’t terribly troubled. Plus, I can see how making the CIA the unsung heroes of the whole piece makes for a slightly more thrilling story. It wasn’t a big issue for me.
2. I did have one problem with the movie, though, and unfortunately, that leads us to everyone’s favorite controversial topic: whitewashing.
Now, knowing Hollywood’s incredibly unfortunate history of casting white actors in non-white roles, my eyebrow rose a little bit when I saw that Ben Affleck was playing a guy named Tony Mendez. But only a little — after all, I’m a quarter Mexican, and no one has ever, ever, looked at my white ass skin and correctly guessed that I’m anything but Caucasian. Maybe the real Tony Mendez had skin as pale as mine, or hey, maybe he wasn’t Latino at all. Maybe Mendez was his wicked stepdaddy’s name. I mean, the hell did I know, right?
Well, unfortunately, that’s not the case. And while it should be noted that Tony Mendez has been vocal about the fact that he doesn’t consider himself to be Hispanic . . . it still bugs me a little. Let’s be clear: it’s not, like, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s level of atrocious. In my opinion, there are definitely degrees of whitewashing, and I do think this is on the softer end of the offensive scale. I’m certainly glad that Mendez, at least, seems to be genuinely unconcerned about the ethnicity of the actor who played him, but let’s be honest here: the straight white man has been the default of Hollywood for, well, forever. A TV show with an all white cast, and no one blinks. A movie with only white men, same deal. But a TV show with all women, or all Latinos, or all gay characters . . . it’s suddenly become a Thing. It’s a Message Movie. It’s a Statement. And really, it shouldn’t have to be. It would have been nice to see a Latino actor playing a lead role where it wasn’t important to the story that he was Latino . . . he just was.
And while I do think the talent of an actor is integral to his casting, sometimes even more than ethnicity . . . look, I think Ben Affleck is good in Argo, honestly. I think it’s probably some of the best acting work I’ve ever seen from him. I can also think of at least half a dozen actors who could’ve done just as respectable job in the same part. You know how you come to love an actor in a role, and then you find out that some other dude was originally cast, and you’re like, “What? Who in the holy hell thought THAT was a good idea? Obviously, Mr. X is the only person who could possibly have played this awesome character!”
Yeah, well, that’s not how I feel about Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez. If I did, maybe I wouldn’t be as bothered by the casting. Possibly a smidge, but probably not enough to write a five paragraph note complete with links. Unfortunately, while Ben Affleck was utterly indispensable as a director, as an actor . . . he could have been replaced. And I think maybe he should have been.
3. Although I suppose it’s only fair to note that none of the characters are drawn with a ton of depth, including Tony Mendez, so it’s not easy to have this “you were meant to play this role” reaction to almost anybody involved. Mind you, this isn’t a knock to the writing. The characters aren’t bad. It’s just that Argo is one of those surprisingly good movies where character isn’t really the focus, despite the truly excellent cast. Seriously, there are a ton of terrific actors playing a variety of supporting roles here — we have Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Titus Welliver, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Clea DuVall, Victor Garber, Bob Gunton, Keith Szarabajka — but most of these parts aren’t terribly nuanced or even particularly flashy. Hell, Alan Arkin, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, doesn’t even have all that much screen time.
But despite the fact that — as a writer — I’m hugely drawn to character-oriented stuff, the movie completely works despite that. Some stories, even Oscar-winning dramas, just aren’t particularly character-focused, and Argo is a very good example of that.
4. So, yes. All of the acting is very strong. And I like Alan Arkin a lot — he and John Goodman play off each other so well. They’re a lot of fun to watch. That being said, if I was in charge of, well, anything, I probably wouldn’t have given him the nod. Don’t get me wrong: Arkin’s awesome — it just doesn’t seem in any way like a stretch for him. My own personal vote for Best Supporting Actor in Argo? Bryan Cranston. He’s kind of a badass. I really ought to start watching Breaking Bad.
5. I think my only other real complaint with Argo is the whole sorta-subplot with Tony Mendez’s wife and kid. Cause, frankly, it was pretty damn thin. The separation from the son didn’t bug me too much, other than that one line about how kids need their mothers (and not their fathers) because, seriously. That’s some total BS I don’t even want to get into right now. But the sort-of-estranged wife thing . . . even if it’s completely based on fact, it still feels very paint-by-numbers: of course the protagonist is separated from his wife. Of course he doesn’t see his kid all that much.
On the plus side, the wife is barely in the film, and I (surprisingly) never had to hear her screech at Ben Affleck for being a horrible father or something like that. Still, I’d rather she hadn’t been there at all. It seems like an unnecessary and cliched addition to the story.
6. I do actually like the few scenes that Tony and his kid are together, though, especially this one shot of them completely surrounded by all the kid’s science fiction toys and memorabilia. It’s a really nice little moment and gives the film a lovely touch of balance.
7. Also, I really like how the credits have side to side pictures of the real people involved and the actors who were cast to play them.
The attention to detail is pretty awesome. Although once again . . . we went to the trouble to make all of these smaller characters look like their real life counterparts, but not our main protagonist? Ack.
Still, these are good credits.
8. A bit of an aside — as you might already know, the fake movie script for Argo was based off of Roger Zelazny’s SF novel, Lord of Light. I have never read it. I’ve actually never read anything by Roger Zelazny, not even his Chronicles of Amber series. Perhaps I should work on that. Fantasy/SF readers? Thoughts?
9. Some quotes from the script that won Best Adapted Screenplay:
Siegel: “It’s got horses in it, it’s a western.”
Siegel: “The saying goes, ‘What starts in farce ends in tragedy’.”
Chambers: “No, it’s the other way around.”
Siegel: “Who said that exactly?”
Siegel: “Groucho said that?”
Chambers: “You need somebody who’s a somebody to put their name on it. Somebody respectable. With credits. Who you can trust with classified information. Who will produce a fake movie. For free.”
Siegel: “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.”
Golacinski: “Don’t fucking shoot anybody. You don’t want to be the sonofabitch who started a war.”
O’Donnell: “Carter said you were a great American.”
Mendez: “A great American what?”
O’Donnell: “He didn’t say.”
Mendez: “You really know Warren Beatty?”
Siegel: “Yes, I do. I took a leak next to him at a Golden Globes party once.”
Chambers: “Target audience will hate it.”
Mendez: “Who’s the target audience?”
Chambers: “People with eyes.”
And of course the catchphrase of the year, the catchphrase made of win:
“Argo fuck yourself.”
I’d get that as a bumper sticker. You know. If I had a car.
10. Finally, yeah. Affleck got robbed.
But with a Best Picture award in his hand, I’m pretty sure he made out okay.
Very solid action-history-drama with a great cast. Tightly woven, tense, and not a lot of wasted moments.
Hollywood will save you.