Argo Film Review Essay Rubric

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The best part of “Argo” is the very beginning—the essay-like reconstruction of the politics of Iran and its relations with the Western world leading up to the 1979 revolution. Of course, the subject of the film is what happened next—the storming of the American embassy in Tehran, where, as fifty-two Americans were taken and held hostage for more than a year, six others got out and took refuge in the Canadian embassy. The events of that assault and escape, and the successful real-life plot to extract them from Iran, concocted by an “exfiltration” specialist, Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck, who also directed), are the story of the film—as everyone knows by now, it involves a fictitious Hollywood science-fiction movie production by Canadians and the disguise of the six Americans as members of the crew, under the specialist’s guidance.

Even though the opening montage is potted history, it’s still the only part of the film that shows a mind at work, that puts the events onscreen into any sort of perspective or relief. The rest of the film leaves me asking: “How in the world do you know this?” The question is addressed to Ben Affleck; he may be present onscreen as an actor but he’s absent from the storytelling. There’s a copious documentary record from which the screenplay was culled. Maybe the people who were involved in the events spoke with Affleck or his screenwriter, Chris Terrio—who knows? The viewer doesn’t. The biggest problem with “Argo” is epistemological. The best modern films about historical subjects, authentic or fictitious—whether Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” or, for that matter, Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close-Up” or Jia Zhangke’s “24 City”—have their footnotes built into them. They contain and convey the investigative work that went into finding out what’s supposed to have happened, what goes into the story. Affleck’s film is based on an article by Joshuah Bearman, “The Great Escape,” that appeared in Wired in 2007, but the film shows no trace of a journalist, conveys no sense that the story needed any piecing-together.

“Argo” is an undigested mass of information, thrown together with skill and care but without thought, without perspective. For that matter, even the characters have no perspective—their personal conflicts are pinned with an index-card precision to the plot mechanism and they’re given no density, no fantasy, no life outside that mechanism. Affleck and Terrio stay so doggedly with a staid preconception of external storytelling that they empty the events of all but the simplest human interest—a yarn told at a bar like a war story, except there isn’t even a bar and nobody doing the telling. There’s no one there.

Their third-person naturalism conveys, above all, authority—an abstract authority, not authorship; not the authority of a filmmaker or, for that matter, of the historical sources, but of Hollywood. The crux of the movie is Hollywood’s tribute to itself, Hollywood in the nation’s service, Hollywood’s fantasy of coming to the rescue of Washington’s reality. I’m reminded of the scene five minutes into Jerry Lewis’s “The Errand Boy,” in which the head of Paramutual Pictures intones to the board of directors, “Movies are your best entertainment”—and the board members rise as one and, hand on heart, intone, “Amen.” In “Argo,” Alan Arkin and John Goodman put the inside-Hollywood scenes over with a cartoonish verve, and Affleck obviously had a good time filming them—it’s what he knows.

It’s true that Hollywood’s ostensible frivolities—which are sometimes wonders of imagination and invention, even substantial works of art—are also, often, delivery systems of liberal values. But when Hollywood people want to put on gravitas, they turn to political subjects, and that’s what happens here. “Argo” is a superficial tale of derring-do that gets its air of importance from its basis in a history that it takes for granted and leaves untouched. The movie suggests even less of an inner life than does the sham sci-fi production at its core. “Argo” is a tribute to an old-fashioned mode of filmmaking, to the Hollywood that, in the potted histories of movies, was driven out by teen-centered cartoonishness such as “Star Wars” and its generations of successors. That’s its true ideology, a tribute not to Hollywood as it is but to an ideal of so-called adult drama that, supposedly, Hollywood doesn’t produce anymore. These films have passed out of currency because they no longer reflect the world as it is; the form of “Argo” invites its own porosity to the question of how the world, and Hollywood, and politics, and the very circulation of knowledge and information have changed in the intervening thirty-three years. Instead, Affleck sticks to the ironclad solidity of a nostalgic tribute to an industry as it was and a world as it was. This is “The Artist” in living color.

Read Anthony Lane’s review of “Argo.”

Photograph courtesy Warner Brothers.

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