Argo is based on a real event. A real event of national importance. One where Americans were being hunted but were saved. Not only that, the movie is getting tremendous critical and general applause. I've been hearing great thing after great thing about this movie. The RT score is at 95%. There's Oscar buzz. People saying it's Affleck's BEST FILM. etc. etc. etc. Part of me feels like it's anti-American to say bad things about this movie?
Team America: World Police is a satirical film dogging on America and whose weapon of choice is puppets. The film is often called racist. Immature. Insulting. And, well, anti-American. Not to mention hilarious.
So where the fuck do I get off comparing the two?
Director: Ben Affleck
LOOK AT ME ACTING: Ben Affleck
Bryan Cranston being intense: Bryan Cranston
Reminds me of the dad from Dinosaurs: John Goodman
Makes cliche Hollywood jokes: Alan Arkin
Master Thundering Rhino: Victor Garber
I'd list the "House Guests" but the movie does't bother to give us any backstory on them, so why should I? I know their fake names better than the names of the actual people.
Escapes to the safety of Iraq: Sheila Vand
Cyrus Vance was a real name?: Bob Gunton
And he's in the movie: Fouad Hajji
What It's Good For:
-convincing people it's a 10 when it's a 7 at best
-showing angry mobs
-showing a whole bunch of angry Iranians, one nice Iranian, and a whole bunch of imposing Iranians
-a lesson in under-developing characters and finding success
-the only movie to make a legitimate claim at being the love child of Ocean's Eleven and The Debt
-hearing cliche jokes about Hollywood and how fake people there are
-recreating 1979, 1980
-CIA, Fuck yeah!
-Canada, H-E-double-hockey-stick yeah!
-seeing how to efficiently use a crowbar to remove pesky grating from windows
-teaches the importance of burning documents rather than shredding
-reminding you you can end any movie with a parent coming home to his or her family and people will think it's nice, no matter how little time is spent setting up the importance and relevance of this family
-winning the record for "how long can we go without showing this guy's wife and still try for the emotional punch of 'aw, look, he's back with his estranged wife'" card
-tension, I guess
-no, seriously, tell me an aspect of this movie that isn't under-developed? The main character is. The house guests are. The relationship between Tony and his family. Canada's involvement. Fuck the other hostages.
-we have more scenes showing young Iranian lads sifting through piles of shredded documents than we do dialogue giving us backstory on the house guests
-Ben Affleck's only two emotions are: sad, and determined
-THERE'S THE MOMENT WHERE BEN AFFLECK COMES TO AN IMPORTANT DECISION AND IN THAT MOMENT WE'RE ZOOMED IN ON HIS FACE AND GET TO WATCH, as the music builds to a crescendo, AS HE GOES FROM STARING AT THE GROUND TO LOOKING UP AND STRAIGHT AHEAD, DETERMINED
-the believability that Iranian guards were chasing a plane and no one in the tower noticed and radios the plane?
-no Matt Damon
Both Team America and Argo open with Americans fucking up. In Team America, an elite American task-force foils a terrorist attack in Paris, but they end up destroying a chunk of Paris (including the Eiffel Tower). In Argo, we help remove a democratic leader from Iran and replace him with a person who is euphemistically described as an asshole (his lunches were flown in from Paris). Oh hey! Paris is in the beginning of both movies.
And both movies come down to ACTING. In Team America, Gary Johnston is a top-notch actor, and he must out-act Alec Baldwin in order to stop Kim Jong-Il from destroying the world. In fact, Kim Jong-Il is hosting a fake peace ceremony hosted by the Film Actors Guild. Kim Jong-Il is also acting and Team America has to stop this elaborate ploy. This is both a similarity to and inversion of the exit strategy in Argo. In Argo, Affleck has set-up an elaborate fake movie in order to trick Iranian revolutionists into thinking wanted Americans are actually part of a Canadian film crew. The six Americans have to ACT or else they will have horrible things happen to them. There's no Alec Baldwin, but one of the characters (who I can't even tell you his name because the movie spends so little time having us get to know who these people are I seriously have no idea what his name was, even if you said "Oh that's Geneva" I couldn't tell you "No one was named Geneva!" (seriously, was anyone named "Geneva"?)) has to act and convince this Iranian guard the seven (six + Affleck) are legitimately part of the film crew so he describes a whole bunch of the movie plot, providing story boards and such to further legitimize his points. IT WORKS. ACTING SAVES THE DAY!!!!!!
Which is another funny similarity. Gary isn't a good actor in his first expedition in Egypt. He blows his cover, due to being nervous, and the entire mission goes awry. He has to have a montage training session, and then he's ready for the final showdown. Likewise, the first time the house guests go into Tehran as a "film crew" they're all nervous. The mission goes awry when a giant dispute breaks out over a photo. Our good guys escape. When the Canadian Ambassador asks Affleck how it went, Affleck shakes his head, the kindly Canadian Ambassador asks what about tomorrow, and Affleck says Tomorrow they'll be ready. We don't get a montage training session, but we do, a few minutes later, have a montage of Affleck looking sad because the mission has been canceled, and of the reaction to the cancelation, and this all culminating with Affleck DECIDING TO GO ON WITH THE MISSION ANYWAY!!!! Thus begins the final showdown.
Don't forget Star Wars. Affleck's film gives us "Argo", which we're told is a cheap Star Wars knock-off. Affleck's character's son has Star Wars bedding and action figures, and don't forget the close-up of the action figures during the final informational portion of the film.
Look. Even the fucking leader of Team America is nearly identical to the Canadian Ambassador.
There are more similarities between Argo and Team America than Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man reboot. That may not be true, but it's disturbingly close to truth.
Here's the kicker though. As far as I'm concerned. Team America is the better movie. Before you hate me forever, let me say this: Argo is nice. It's great we have a movie that sheds some light on an actual historic event. The story IS cool. And I'm sure the real Tony Mendez is honored. Oh, real fast, did you know the real Tony Mendez has three kids? I'm sure the two that the movie erased from existence feel honored as well...Well, at least proud of their dad. Anyway. I'm sure the Canadian government people who helped the CIA and Tony with this mission were happy to see the fruit of their labor brought to the big screen.
Well. I guess it's not all the fruit of their labor. An article by Martin Knelman in the Toronto Star describes some of the controversy with Argo. A snippet:
“I expressed my concern with certain details in the movie,” Taylor told me [Knelman] just before leaving his hotel to catch a flight back to New York. “In reality, Canada was responsible for the six and the CIA was a junior partner. But I realize this is a movie and you have to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Ben was very gracious and we got along really well. There are a few points I want to address. Now Ben and I both feel free to talk about them.”
Which brings me back to the problem with Moneyball. Making movies about real stories involving people who are still alive usually ends up insulting someone. The problem is this: Hollywood takes liberties with a plot to make a story more interesting because they think assume people need the Hollywood-touch on these stories rather than the stories themselves, Hollywood then markets the film as based on a true story. People are silly enough to believe these events. Other people are smart enough to research what really happened. "Oh, wait, Scott Hatteberg played in 136 games for the 2002 Athletics? He was a regular starter? But the movie made it seem like he wasn't playing because Art Howe was a dick? You mean Art Howe wasn't such a jerk?" But there are people who will just think Art Howe was an asshole. The same way people will think the CIA did more in the Canadian Caper than Canada did.
So maybe I say "Argo is nice" a little sarcastically. But, seriously, I think Team America is a better movie.
Here's why, summed in one word: DEVELOPMENT.
What does Argo develop? The house guests are without backstories. We know more about their fake identities than their real identities. We see how the pressures of staying inside are getting to them. But is this really developed? The one guy goes outside and comes back inside and gets yelled at for less than 20 seconds (literally, the scene goes from 24:31 to 24:49):. There's one moment where they're having a nice dinner with Ken Taylor and his wife when there's the sound of a helicopter, so the house guests have to climb in their hole. We see this happen once. That's supposed to convey everything. Ben Affleck could have had a minute long montage of this repeating, them just having to climb in the hole again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again, then we'd really see the pressure of being inside. The film breezes through months and months of time, only showing us a handful of brief scenes involving the house guests. Compare this to the film The Debt, where the agents are trapped in a house for weeks with a hostage (a Nazi doctor) who is going all Iago (from Othello) on them trying to turn them against each other. Tell me which does a better job of developing the claustrophobia, the one with a few brief scenes or the one with a 20 minute section dedicated to this.
I can tell you more backstory about the MGM slate of six sci-fi films than I can about the house guests (even if part of that backstory is fake).
The role of Canada is under-developed, especially when compared to what we see the CIA doing. Sure, the film is about the extraction. So it makes sense to focus on Mendez and the CIA. But Canada still played a role in this whole thing. If this were a fictional film, fine, don't show Canada. BUT IT'S NOT A FICTIONAL FILM. Which to me means the film is being irresponsible and rude. That's just me. Maybe you're fine with it. "It's just a movie! Enjoy it for what it is!" But imagine if people made a movie about your best friend's life. And there was that time your friend was really upset, so upset she was going to commit suicide! And she called you, and you drove over (you're both...22 at this point), and you talked with her and she calmed down. She hugged you. She said she wouldn't know what to do without you, that you saved her life. But instead of portraying this, the movie has the friend's love interest show up. And HE is the one who saves her. And she says she owes her life to him. And then they get married. But her husband, the one this character is supposed to be, she didn't even meet until 4 years after the would-be suicide, when you both were 26! On top of that, your character only has like...three scenes, in the very beginning of the movie. And at one point they show you as being jealous that your friend is spending time with the boyfriend. You two fight. This never happened. How would you feel? Would you shrug and say "It's just a movie! We just need to enjoy it for what it is!" despite the fact people will think that's who you are, that's what you did? Would you be cool with that? You wouldn't think the filmmakers were...maybe a little...irresponsible...a little rude?
Iran is under-developed, is rendered Black & White. We're shown an amazing amount of crazy Iranians. And then the one nice housekeeper, Sara, is the balance. There's no gray. There's barely any white. There's just a shit ton of angry, anti-American obsidian.
Affleck's/Tony's family? HIS WIFE DOESN'T SHOW UP UNTIL THE 109TH MINUTE! His son is in 22:20-22:50 (and I'm including the seconds where we're looking at Affleck and just hearing the son's voice). WE SEE MORE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES THAN WE DO TONY'S SON. And yet we're supposed to be happy Tony is with his family at the end of the movie? There's no development. The film is relying on the generic notion that it's nice to see a parent spend time with their kid, that a husband who is estranged from his wife is welcomed by his wife. We don't actually know Tony's wife. We barely fucking know Tony. We know he has a wife and kid and he works for the CIA, and he's friends with John Chambers and Lester Siegel. I don't fucking care that his wife takes him back and he's with his kid. I just think it's nice that a husband and wife are reunited and a dad is spending time with his son.
This is true of the house guests. I don't care about them. They're the house guests. The only reason the film gives me for caring about them: they're Americans and in danger. The film is relying on my notion of nationalism and humanity rather than trying to get me to care about these people as individuals.
The most developed aspect of the movie? THE FUCKING FAKE MOVIE.
At least Team America has characters that have a history. There are characters that grow, dynamics shift (characters fall in love, a hateful character overcomes his hate, they grieve, etc). It makes me laugh a lot. I'm impressed by the puppetry. What's Argo do that impresses me? The most impressive thing to me is the under-development. And that's not a good thing. Well, and "Argo fuck yourself." That's a good thing.
I will say this: the two movies are equally one-sided in their portrayal of Middle Easterners. Except Team America is a fucking satire showing how narrow-minded and ridiculous Hollywood is, and Argo is a Hollywood made critically-acclaimed, audience-adored Oscar contender based on a true story. In that sense, Argo IS EXACTLY WHAT TEAM AMERICA WAS MAKING FUN OF. They're the same movie, but each told in its own way. One's way is the "we're full of shit, and we know it, and we want you to see it" method, the other's is the "we think we're awesome, and we want you to think so too, but what we don't know is that we're really full of shit" method. One way involves graphic sex scenes, blow job jokes, erupting heads, panthers, celebrities dying, the destruction of national symbols, racism, and Kim Jong-Il as an alien. The other involves being historically and generally accurate enough to convince people you're being honest so then you can lie to them in the name of entertainment and at the cost of insulting and minimizing the efforts of real people who are still alive. You tell me which is the more better movie.
Did I Like It:
No. I mean. It's not bad in the way Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is bad, but in some ways it's worse than Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. At least Dark had backstory and character development. When I'm not writing movie stuff, I write fiction and poetry. I'm all about avant garde shit, genre decimation, and the like. I have read and I adore Infinite Jest, Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow. It's not like I'm a conventionalist. I'm not totally insane, either. I like 1984, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Spring Snow. Those novels are way more conventional than the first three I listed. My film tastes show the same range. I can dig an romantic comedy as much as an Antonioni film.
What am I saying?
Every writer knows the importance of developing character and situation. You can't avoid those two things. Even NOT developing character should be a development. What's that mean? The Bourne series. The Bourne Identity is all about figuring out who the fuck Bourne is, and this continues for two more movies. Argo captures that same idea of: who the fuck are these people? But it never develops it into anything. How much of Ocean's Eleven is the heist of casino? The actual execution takes up about half an hour of the film (minute 70-something to about minute 100). Argo's actual extraction takes, what? 20 minutes. Minute 83 to Minute 102.5. What happens in this time? Tickets come through at the last minute. A guy has to go behind a closed door and comes back before stamping a piece of paper. Someone talks aggressively in Farsi, someone responds in Farsi, we only get subtitles for what the American says in the conversation. We see a series of storyboards. Then a guy makes a phone call. The phone is answered at the last minute (go figure). Then our characters get to a bus that will take them to the plane. Of course the "bad guys" now find out who the film crew is. Cue one-sided chase. Cue everything working out just fine. I just don't think much happens in the 20 minutes. Some cheap thrills (tickets at the last minute, speaking Farsi at the least minute, answering the phone at the last minute, getting through the gate at the last minute, the plane taking off at the last minute). I will argue Ocean's Eleven is more complex, has more parts, and is more interesting. "But Argo is based on a real story!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" EXCEPT EVERYTHING THAT GOES ON AT THE AIRPORT WAS ADDED IN TO MAKE IT MORE INTENSE. The actual escape wasn't so dramatic.
From the mouth of Mark Lijek, who was one of the house guests: "It was clear the organization and energy was focused on the Hollywood option. And they were right to be: While the movie presents myriad dramatic complications and last-minute twists and turns, the plan actually went off without a hitch."
So what's more thrilling, the airport tension, and the 20 second snippets where the house guests show how much pressure they're under, of it Affleck would have focused on this: "Lijek's account focuses on the drama the group had going from place to place in the lead-up to Mendez's arrival. The six managed to evade capture, going from one temporary safe space to the next before ending up in the safe hands of the Canadian compound and in the care of Canadian John Sheardown, who was critical in safeguarding them."
I would have liked to have seen more of what the house guests were going through, more of their story. Instead, Argo simplifies their ordeal in order to give Affleck's character more screen time. Oh, and if you can't remember who John Sheardown was in the movie, that's because John Sheardown wasn't shown in the movie.
Go ahead and like Argo. Just don't try to tell me it's a good movie, or that it's cool because it's based on a true story. I'd rather see a movie about the true story than this bastardization/capitalization. It's a two hour film that should have been two and a half.
My closing words: Argo, Argo fuck yourself.
Yo, but Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms.
People are saying this is Affleck's best directing. Maybe with what he does with the camera? It's definitely the most convoluted what with the riot and all the extra that were necessary in the airport and the bazaar scene. But I think it's his worse. I loved Gone Baby Gone. Fully-developed (though I haven't watched it since 2007...maybe it's not as good as I remember?). The Town was middling to me. Cool parts. Blake Lively. But I thought things weren't developed well enough there (meaning the movie plot, not Blake Lively, Blake Lively has no development issues), especially Fergie. I thought it predictable, too. Argo just...lacks so much. And here Arkin is saying this puts Affleck in the rank of great American filmmakers. I didn't know that club was so easy to get in to.
% Character / % Actor's personality / % Uniqueness grade for actor
-shitty movies people think are good: The Artist; Unforgiven;
-movies set in the Middle East: The Hurt Locker; A Separation; Waltz with Bashir; Paradise Now; Taste of Cherry
-movies where acting is important: Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back; A Knight's Tale; Gladiator; 21 Jump Street
-movies that don't exploit their subject matter: Night and Fog; Man on Wire; Nanook of the North; Jaguar
-better 2012 releases: Safe House; Project X; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
-more analysis of Argo: click here