What Makes ‘Argo’ Really Worth Watching?

Ben Affleck’s latest thriller is a well-crafted, fast-paced report on the unbelievable yet true story surrounding a fictional film titled Argo. In an appropriate bit of ironic self-awareness, Affleck’s actual film, Argo, is as authentic as Hollywood productions come. The film’s recognitions are a true triumph for the young filmmaker, as are it’s substantial box office totals.

It’s also Affleck’s worst film yet as a director.

Call me crazy — and I’m sure most will considering Argo is about to win Best Picture — but shouldn’t a film building toward a suspenseful escape have some, you know, suspense to it? Though how it was done remained a mystery for almost two decades after the events transpired, everyone knew that the six American hostages kept in the Canadian embassy in Iran escaped home safely to the States.

I’m not trying to craft an argument similar to saying everyone should hate Titanic because we know the ship sinks, but at least in James Cameron’s historical epic we didn’t know the fate of young Jack and Rose. Here, we know it all, and if somehow you don’t, Affleck is happy to spell it out for you minutes before it happens.

The climactic airport scene is divided up into security stages. Affleck as Tony Mendez, the CIA operative sent in to save the hostages, tells us what’s about to happen at each checkpoint right before we watch the people actually go through it. There’s nothing too confusing about the ordeal, thus making the narration useless, and it actively kills any sense of impending doom the film worked to establish already.

“At this checkpoint, they’re just going to look at your passports. Your passports are clean, so don’t worry about it,” Mendez tells the group. Then we watch as Iranian security guards check the passports while the worried hostages, or houseguests as they’re commonly reffered, look on in poorly-hidden concern. Then Mendez tells us what will happen next. Then they do it. Repeat two more times, throw in a fabricated airport chase down the runway and they’re off.

Forgive me for now preceding any of that with a SPOILER, but I’ll cite the Titantic argument one more time. You know the end. I’m not ruining anything.

Now, what makes Argo worth watching is “the how it was done” I mentioned earlier. No one knew exactly how the operation was set up, who it went through, and what was needed to execute it. Making up the film’s middle 40 minutes or so, this aspect of Argo is intriguing and sporadically humorous. John Goodman and Alan Arkin shine as Hollywood big wigs helping Mendez to set up a fake production.

The insider jokes wear out their welcome pretty quickly, but Affleck had to know they’d play well with Oscar voters so it’s understandable why they weren’t cut. What’s disappointing is that there weren’t more jokes everyone could embrace, whether you know the biz or not. Yet the process is an enjoyable one to watch unfold, and its brevity compared to the action taking place in Iran makes it negligible to the movie’s overall impact.

Who really holds the film together, though, isn’t Affleck. It’s not Goodman or Arkin. It’s not even the hostages. It’s Bryan Cranston. Cranston plays Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s sympathizing superior at the CIA. He delivers the good news and the bad news with equal measures of understanding and restraint. He’s given one scene to truly let it all hang out just before the climax at the airport, and his intensity lets us forget for a moment that we already know what’s about to happen.

It’s a level of depth Affleck doesn’t show with his character. Not here. Not in this film. While I’ve been a fan of the actor for some time and know he’s capable of greatness (see Good Will Hunting and The Town), his performance here is understated to the point of being apathetic. Sure, he has a couple of choice moments where the stoic expression on his face breaks, but he’s pretty much the straight man for everyone else. Be it a conscious choice to benefit his fellow players or an unavoidable result of him giving so much of his attention to what’s happening behind the camera, his performance doesn’t help the film. Had he nabbed Clooney or another A-lister for the lead role, a fully focused performance could have elevated the film.

The blu-ray comes with ample special features. There are three making-of documentaries ranging from six to 16 minutes, and one feature-length (technically) doc made decades ago clocking in at more than 40 minutes. The real life hostages, Tony Mendez, and even President Jimmy Carter, appear on the bonus features. The interviews basically serve as affirmation the film got it right, but seeing the real people and hearing them tell the story in their one words is certainly really interesting.

There are also two special features that play along with the movie. One uses picture-in-picture to show interviews with the real life houseguests as the movie plays. The other is a commentary track with screenwriter Chris Terrio and Affleck. In a perfect world, Mendez would have been in there as well, but that may be a lot to ask. Deleted scenes, theatrical trailers, and TV spots seem like reasonable expectations, though, and none appear. Perhaps we’ll find them in the post-Best Picture win special edition that’s bound to be coming.

RATING 7 / 10