What I ended up getting from "Argo" was a movie that I didn't dislike. That's about the best I can say about it. I didn't dislike it. It was okay. It was acceptable. It was the textbook definition of something that sure didn't suck. And there is no way in Heaven, Hell, The Feywild, Valhalla, Middle-Earth, Cimmeria, or the Romulan Nebula that it was a better picture than "Django Unchained." I haven't seen "Zero Dark Thirty" yet but I'm guessing it was nowhere near as good as that one, either. As it was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that one too, the Best Picture award went to the safest choice. Boo to that mess.
On the other hand, I did like it better than "Lincoln."
"Argo" is about a not-until-recently declassified operation during the Iran hostage crisis of the early 80's. Apart from the hostages being held at the embassy, there were 6 Americans who had managed to flee during the storming of the building, and were taken in by the Canadian ambassador. There they hid for months until the CIA launched a plan so ludicrous that it had to work. The plan was to get them out by disguising them as a film crew scouting locations for a movie. Of course, to make the cover story stick, they had to do a good chunk of the work required to actually make a movie.
More airports need a scary looking bearded man leering over you in quiet judgement.
They went as far as having a script, a producer, a cast, and news events promoting it. And it is fun to watch all the attention to detail that goes on, and how all those pieces eventually come together. The most tense moments of the movie are completely reliant on those little details, as these characters who have no knowledge of the film industry are having to whip out the illustrated storyboards and posters at airport security as they're being grilled on the validity of their story, and having to describe the artistic vision of the movie that they're not making. It does make for some mild suspense.
There's also some surprisingly good humor to be found. Most of the comedy can be found in Alan Arkin and John Goodman's performances, which are admittedly top-notch. Arkin is a very typical "Jew-y" producer with the trademark dry wit and sarcasm that you'd imagine someone like that to have. One of the best bits of "Argo" has him pulling an "I don't like you and you don't like me but screw it let's do this because we're both jerks" speech on another producer to get his support for the project, and it makes for a pretty funny scene that also feels very natural. And John Goodman is again playing John Goodman, and that's awesome. He's like Jeff Bridges in that he's always the same guy, but you never get tired of him because he rocks so hard. Bryan Cranston also gets a few good ones in there too, which is also unsurprising as he's Bryan Cranston and also freaking awesome.
"Bryan, where are you going?"
"Aw ta hell with all this. I'm making meth."
It's no surprise that the most interesting bits of "Argo" are the Hollywood bits with Arkin and Goodman. I don't want to say that the Iran portions were necessarily boring, but like I'm going to bring up later, there's no suspense because you know the Americans made it out. The Hollywood stuff was classified. We don't really know how they did it or what went into it, so there's some genuine drama there. Plus when you've got Arkin and Goodman tearing it up, it's hard to care as much about Affleck and his beard on the other side of the world.
This leads into my biggest problem with "Argo," which was that there wasn't enough going on to warrant that tension the movie thinks it has. Upon reflection, not a whole lot really happened. Americans escape overrun embassy in Iran, Canadians hide them, the CIA concocts a fake movie production, Ben Affleck goes in, the plan works, they get on a plane, they leave Iran. Roll credits. Truly an epic tale that makes J.R.R Tolkien look like E.L. James.
All this is no doubt well made, and the attention to detail and time period is pretty outstanding, as the movie rather egotistically points out during a masturbatory end credit sequence comparing shots from the movie to actual photos. But when all a movie has to hang its hat on is getting little details right, there's not much to get all arrogant about. And all that tension people were saying it had basically boils down to two phone calls. That's the big climactic hurdle our heroes must overcome: Getting someone on the phone. It's not even a tense conversation. It's just that John Goodman had to pick it up in time and say "Hello, Studio 7." Aside from that his biggest challenge was getting past a nerd with a walkie talkie, which between that and dealing with an Iranian extremist proved the more challenging venture.
"No, look you guys, this movie's legit. It's about a kid and an old wizard with magical powers, but later we find out the magic is actually bacteria! They won't be able to print money fast enough."
Not helping was the fact that the ending was already known to us from the very beginning, as it's based on a true story. We know they got out. All those little details don't matter too much when you're building tension because you know they're going to be fine. Even when their cover gets blown at the last moment and there's an effort to stop them before their plane takes off, there was never a moment when I was worried for them. The minute John Goodman picked up the phone I knew they were going to be just fine, and the dash to stop them, which was the nail-biting climax of the film, was completely ineffective on me.
The problem with "Argo" is that the fluff is good, but there's no crunch, so to speak. I brought nothing away from it. It's not a movie that's going to warrant any kind of discussion afterwards. Now I don't mean that to imply that unless a film is "deep" it's without value. Plenty of my favorite films wouldn't warrant any discussion afterwards besides "Did you see that guy getting blown in half?!" That doesn't mean it's bad. That means it's entertaining for what it's trying to do. But with "Argo" I can't say that I went as far as to even think about it after it was over. It was done and out of my head. In fact it was sometimes difficult to think about it when it was happening.
At least the proposed movie featuring a guy getting blown in half would have elicited a reaction out of me. In that case it would have been excitement or a high five if someone else was in the room. But when I feel absolutely nothing about a film afterwards, I just feel like I've wasted my time. I'd honestly rather watch an epically bad movie than something bland like "Argo" or "The King's Speech" or "The Social Network" or "Lincoln" or any of the rest of the "made-to-win-Oscars" brand of film making.
Now I'm not saying Affleck is a bad director...but I'm sorry, Ben. Tommy Wiseau has you beat in the entertainment department.
And by the way, don't look up what really happened if you want to enjoy "Argo" as a factual film, because the reality of the situation was actually far less exciting. I'm not saying that a movie has to be 100% accurate to be good, after all that's why it's called "based on true events" so they can have dramatic license. It's a movie, that's fine. But when you're bored by a film and then find out later that they actually jazzed it up quite a bit for the sake of "excitement," and it's STILL dull, it's all you can do to shake your head and wonder if it was worth it.
So once again my reputation for being a complete snob and not caring much for any movie that wins Best Picture is intact. I can't call "Argo" a bad film. It's just so unmemorable. Ben Affleck may be the newest sacred cow of Hollywood, but I think we may have another George Clooney/Sean Penn on our hands with him - meaning that he's going to get way more credit than he probably deserves, simply because he is who he is. And that's a shame because I think he's pretty good. I'd hate to see it go to his head. But even if it doesn't I'm sure Tarantino will still get jipped.
Check out the trailer for "Argo." I like how they used the "Inception" BWAAAAAA to make it intense.
THE BOTTOM LINE - "Argo" is a solid example of basic competence. This is a vanilla milkshake. This a vodka and tonic. There is nothing overly special about it, tasty as it may be. I can't see a single reason this deserved Best Picture. And it's not just a matter of me holding it to a higher standard than others. I would have thought the same of it had it been by anybody else, or even if it hadn't been nominated for anything. It's worth a look, but not worth any gold statue.