"ARGO" COULD NEVER WIN

~ Posted by Nicholas Barber, February 25th 2013

You can’t win ‘em all. Last year, several months before "Argo" came out, I was invited to Warner Bros’ offices for an early screening of the film, the idea being that I might preview it in Intelligent Life. I couldn’t wait. I’d championed Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, "Gone Baby Gone", and his follow-up, "The Town", confirmed that he could make a muscular yet sensitive thriller.  "Argo" promised to be even more impressive. According to the notes I was handed outside the screening room, it told the true story of a secret agent who smuggled six American diplomats out of Tehran by pretending they were a film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction movie. This, I thought, would take Affleck’s standing as a director to a new level. He was switching from fiction to fact; he was making a period piece; he was moving beyond the confines of Boston—and America itself. As the lights went down, I flicked through my mental thesaurus and got ready to start scribbling superlatives. 

Two hours later, I wasn’t so enthusiastic. I had to admit, regretfully, that the film didn’t quite work. It couldn’t decide whether it was a comedy caper or a pulse-pounding espionage thriller. The most exciting bits—the market outing, the runway chase—didn’t ring true at all. Affleck’s character was a cipher, and while he kept reassuring people that he was an expert at the hostage-extraction business, we never witnessed his expertise. He flew to Iran, he handed out some cover stories, he flew out again. That was it.

The next morning, a Warner Bros press officer emailed me for my reaction. Kind fellow that I am, I endeavoured to let him down gently. "Argo" was a respectable film, I said. It wasn’t bad at all. The critics would appreciate how Affleck, once a joke of an actor with a string of flops to his name, had turned his career around. However, I warned, Warners shouldn’t expect any five-star reviews or awards nominations.

Cut to November 2012. Everywhere I look, there are posters for "Argo" with more stars on them than the American flag. Never as a film critic have I been so far out on a limb. But the hullabaloo has to die down soon, doesn’t it?

Cut to awards season, and "Argo" picks up the Best Drama prize at the Golden Globes. Then the Best Film prize at the Baftas. Then...well, do I need to mention the Oscars? I really hope the people at Warners deleted my email. Did I say you can’t win ‘em all? It turns out you can, as long as you’re "Argo".

Nicholas Barber is a film critic, and a former rock critic, for the Independent on Sunday. His recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Wanted: cartoons for adults and Call yourself a sushi chef.