Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

13 October 2012

Jason and the Argonauts

Argo is really good.

I'm going to assume that you're all planning on seeing this movie anyway, right? I mean, the trailer is excellent, and this is the same guy who directed The Town two years ago. At the very least, Argo delivers on all of the things that you know you are going to get from Affleck: the pacing is absolutely excellent. He knows when to build tension, when to let the audience in on a bit of irony, when to relieve a series of fast-paced sequences with something more contemplative, and he is expert at relieving tension with a good joke. He did this in both of his previous movies, and it works here just as well.

The story is a great one. Utterly preposterous and also based on a true story. The story is, in fact, so good that the film doesn't need to give its audience the usual twists and feints that we are so used to seeing in the movies these days. Instead, Affleck tells it in a straightforward manner, throwing up only a few obstacles at the end, but even these seem less important than the inevitability of the story itself.

For me, though, this film is all about its incredible supporting players. The supporting cast in Argo is just the best. Affleck is wonderful in the central role, a lovely anchor to the film, but what makes this film work from start to finish is the great performances that an entire series of undersung supporting players in Hollywood give in small roles. Clea DuVall, Bryan Cranston, Tate Donovan, Chris Messina, Farshad Farahat, and Željko Ivanek, were my personal favorites, but there is excellent work all around.

John Goodman and Alan Arkin are mostly here for laughs. They get almost all the good lines, and their respective deliveries of these gems are easily worth Argo's price of admission.

I do think that Affleck's sentimental side tends to kick in as he tries to end his films. I felt frustrated with the oh-so-romantic ending to The Town, and I felt just as frustrated with the pat ending of Argo. These kinds of endings feel easy, almost obligatory, as though the brain of everyone working on the film stopped working in the film's last five minutes and everyone turned into Steven Spielberg circa 1982.

One more note about nostalgia. Sometimes I complain when films sentimentalize an earlier period in movie history. Argo does this blatantly. There's this great sequence where people quote Sidney Lumet's Network and then someone onscreen references it explicitly. The entire idea for Argo comes from Don Taylor's Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Affleck ends the film with a shot of miniature versions of the Star Wars characters. Even more (and I laughed out loud when I saw this), the logo that Affleck uses for the distributor's credit at the very beginning of Argo is Warner Bros' logo from the late 1970s. It's a great in-joke that immediately set the tone for the picture. This Warner Bros image, too, is not a nostalgic one per se. In fact, let me be kind and say that it isn't exactly the best logo Warner has ever had. Affleck isn't romanticizing the 1970s so much as he is revisiting them, warts and all.

I want to say just one more thing, and that is that I am told there is Oscar buzz about Argo, and while I think that is good news for Affleck's career (he deserves it), and good for the movie in general. I really hope that no one starts acting like Argo is the frontrunner for Best Picture. I don't think the movie's got the legs for that. And it doesn't need them. Behaving as though this movie should win Best Picture is asking more than ought to be asked of Argo. It's a very strong tongue-in-cheek spy movie that happens to be a true story.
Let's all just sit back and enjoy it. It's a good movie.