I’m a hardened cynic when it comes to the Oscars. My favorite pictures are rarely nominated and I haven’t been impressed by a Best Picture winner since No Country For Old Men in 2007, and before that, Unforgiven (1992). If you think I give the Oscars a cold shoulder just because I’m not part of the fun, please read this article, published in The Atlantic by an Academy member. It’s a side of Oscar night you don’t see on television.
At the time of the Oscar telecast I had seen exactly zero of the Best Picture nominees (though I was fortunate to catch Searching For Sugar Man, which won Best Documentary). Unimpressed with Ben Affleck’s previous efforts, I had no desire to see Argo. But I’m an open minded guy, right? So I challenged myself to watch and enjoy it.
Argo passed the first test. It was watchable. At no point did I want to shut it off and mourn my wasted time. The narrative is effective; I found no terrible plot holes or useless scenes that dragged down the pacing. In fact, if you’re looking for a movie to take up two hours of your life, this one is just fine.
My cynicism isn’t purely negative; it grows from my optimism that the televisual arts can be much more than time filler. And in this sense Argo failed. Here are two crucial elements Argo missed that a great film should have.
Every movie is a world. Rather than passively observing, we rely on characters to act as our surrogates in a journey through this world. The more thoroughly developed a character is, the more we identify with the character and the more immersed we become in the conflicts this fictional world provides the character(s).
In Argo there were no characters that I could discern. Instead of characters we are given a series of characterizations. Characterizations are the superficial elements of characters such as the things they say or wear or own. Because Argo moves the plot forward so mechanically, we never see the characters conflicted to the point where they have to make revealing choices. Instead the characters just do what they do to move the plot forward.
Robert McKee wrote correctly when he pointed out that a choice between good and evil is no choice at all. A good character will choose the good, and an evil character will choose evil, and we learn nothing about either character in this case. True character is revealed in the choices the character makes under pressure. Even more revealing is when a character decides between two goods or two evils.
McKee uses a good example I’ll reiterate. Two people are driving down a highway, one in a clunker and the other in a Ferrari. They come upon a burning bus with people trapped inside. If the guy in the Ferrari stops to help and the other person doesn’t, we’ve learned much more about them than the type of car they drive. If they both stop and try to help, we learn about true character by how they do it. Does one person automatically try to rescue the women before the men? Does one of them reach for the only white person? Does one charge blindly into the fire while the other calls the police? These actions reveal much more than dialogue or fashion.
Ben Affleck’s character has no journey, no character arc through this film. Sure he makes decisions under pressure, but his inner strength or convictions are never threatened. He simply moves the plot forward. We’re told at the beginning of the film that he’s “their best guy,” and he just does the ideal thing in each situation. There are a couple scenes that mention he is estranged from his wife and son, but (spoiler) when he escapes from Iran, his wife simply accepts him back. He does literally nothing to overcome the conflict with his wife (which is meant to show us his character and humanity); it is resolved for him mechanically and for no apparent reason.
Likewise we see no telling decisions made by any of the other characters. In Argo, if a character is meant to be funny, he or she says funny things. If a character is not trusting, he or she argues. We never see characters faced with any meaningful choices, and the characters undergo absolutely no internal change from the beginning to the end of the movie. Thus Argo plays like a soulless, clockwork fiction.
Now more than ever Industry kills Art. I romanticize a time in history when art was made simply to instill a sense of the sublime and the beautiful, but successful art in our culture must put asses in the seats. In fact, our artistic industries only demand that asses make it into seats. Whether the product is sublime or beautiful or meaningful is completely secondary to the bottom line. Because of this I go to very few theatrical releases.
Films that move me have something extra. Call it an X-factor. A great movie should engage our reason and intuition as well as our emotions, and it should project us toward something more than what is seen and heard. We should come away from a movie still thinking about it, still moved by it, or still involved in its mystery. A perfect film achieves all three. I want a movie to take on an inner life in my psyche that draws me deeper into the spirit of the experience. Otherwise the movie is just a two hour experience like any other. A car ride can take two hours, and it may or may not be enjoyable, but at least it takes me somewhere. I look to art and films in particular to invoke wonder.
Placed next to Lost Highway or 8 1/2 or even Goodfellas, Argo looks about as interesting as a menu. Topical entertainment has its place but it is most effective when it places the particular inside the context of a bigger picture. Why is this topic important for our current marketplace? Yes Iran is in the news, but is that enough? I wonder if people are simply looking for an entertaining confirmation that what they hear in the news is correct (i.e. that Iran is bad). Of course any serious thought on the issue shows it to be much more complicated than that.
A film should have something meaningful to say. You might say that Argo celebrates creative, non-violent problem solving. Okay, fine, but the message starts and ends there. People talked about how smart the sci-fi movie District 9 was because of its parallels to apartheid, but what does the movie actually say about apartheid? It says “Apartheid is bad,” and that’s all. How provocative.
Voting Argo Best Picture is like saying the height of cinematic achievement is that it can make us sit still for two hours without being pissed off. With all that money and talent Hollywood should aim for a little more.