Last week I wrote that if “Argo” won the Academy Award for best picture, I’d eat a brick. Well, shit. I’m floored that “Argo” took home the Oscars’ biggest prize. Do I think it deserved it? Not really. (Of the nine movies nominated, I would’ve picked three or four others before settling on “Argo.”) But hey! Who cares what I think? Ben Affleck has completed the career turnaround of which we all hoped he was capable — shrugging off his string of horrendous late-’90s/early-’00s films to reinvent himself as a potent filmmaker with wide ambitions. So maybe there’s more to “Argo” than meets the eye. (We are astoundingly quick to criticize blockbusters, to be fair.) At the very least, I’m willing to re-examine the film.
When I first saw the trailer for “Argo” last summer, I was completely unimpressed. Maybe it had something to do with the plot, which, if anything, initially turned me away from the idea of the movie altogether: A CIA operative flies to Iran to sneak out six escaped U.S. citizens during the 1979 hostage crisis. Their cover? A team of sci-fi filmmakers location scouting for their next big picture. Obviously the story gets a bit more complex than that, but the basic idea is the same. It was something seemingly ripped straight out of Hollywood, and I couldn’t have been more turned off.
It’s not that I necessarily doubted the skill of Affleck, who also plays the lead role of Tony Mendez. Nor did I have a problem with the film’s other stars: Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, all of whom provide great backup. I just figured “Argo” would fall down the same predictable throughways that define just about any other rescue movie: a Point A to Point B structure built on high stakes that are, in the end, meaningless and forgettable.
So it just doesn’t seem like the journey from Point A to Point B in this film, which admittedly was one of the best thrillers of 2012, should be so captivating. After all, if you can grasp even a smidge of U.S. history you’d know that all the hostages taken in the embassy conflict were eventually returned alive. What’s more, why would Affleck (or anyone in Hollywood for that matter) invest in such a big-name film if it wasn’t going to have a happy ending? We know everything turns out all right in the end, so the scene-to-scene tension shouldn’t be more than minimal at best. But that’s the thing: Every turn is sharp. No action is wasted. Everything has a suspenseful purpose.
I know, I know. All thrillers are supposed to work this way. But “Argo” takes it one notch higher. Found footage mixed with nostalgic camera coloring. Shots of frenzy here, shots of subdued chaos there. Screaming voices and bodies hanging from cranes. Silence in still halls just before the onslaught of a mob. Each moment is choreographed not beautifully but out of necessity, and for that you have to signal out Affleck, whose direction, while no means aesthetically genius, is nothing less than consistently smart. He understands how to throw people to the edges of their seats, and so he does precisely that right from the opening tip.
But what’s perhaps most astounding about the film is its subtle humanity, which helps navigate it away from the pitfalls of the traditional thriller. There are no hokey one-liners, no pointlessly ridiculous characterizations, and most importantly, no completely black-and-white villains. There is only Mendez, trying to rescue the six hostages, and the government trying to stop him.
If anything, the idea behind “Argo” comes down to a very basic principle found across borders: The protection of life and freedom is ultimately ordained by the good graces of good people. Everyone needs a little help to get by — real problems only arise when that help is hard to find. But the smallest acts of selflessness can still speak volumes, even if they are committed for complete and total strangers who themselves are fundamentally opposite to you in every way. And if that’s what we’re taking away from the latest Oscar winner, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised at all. Now please excuse me while I go find that brick.