I couldn't help but think of Ben Affleck and Argo while I was watching Pablo Larraín's No (the Chilean nominee for Best Foreign Film), much to the former's detriment. I do have to keep reminding myself as the "Pity poor Ben Affleck!" parade storms towards the Oscars that I don't hate Argo - I was definitely mixed towards it [my review here] but there are things about it (namely everything with the hostages, but not Ben Affleck himself) that are fantastic. It's a solid enough movie, a crowd-pleaser that's pleasing enough, that in no way shape or form deserves a Best Picture statue. But hey there are several movies I dislike more that are up for the prize, so what you gonna do?
Anyway watching No was like watching the movie that Argo could have been if it weren't so intent on steeping itself in cliche so often. Here's a movie about a young dude pulled into the middle of a foreign revolution who uses an outside skill set in order to turn the tide and save the day. Compare for instance the interesting flawed human being that Gael Garcia Bernal gives us - a man who's simultaneously turned on by getting to show off what he's good at and at the same time do something he believes in. He's found a way to do what he loves and marry it with who's always wanted to be, and the film plots it through tiny transformations, as the world changes around him and he almost can't seem to believe it. Compare that man with the man Ben Affleck plays, who is Ben Affleck in furrowed brow mode, who we never doubt for a single moment will do the right thing, and who has some vaguely sad back-story that's scribbled at the edges in primary colored crayola.
No is about watching its character transform the plot - Argo is about watching plot bounce from A to B to Z. Give a terrific character actor like Victor Garber or Clea Duvall or Scoot McNairy the confines of a paper-thin character to march through a threadbare plot and they'll still probably turn it into something fascinating, for sure. You point the camera at those faces and it can't help but find something to look at. But there's not a lot of there there with Argo, while No digs itself into all sorts of fascinating nooks and crannies and twists itself into all kinds of fascinating pretzels having to do with politics and popular culture and revolution and on and on. Both films take these real world events and turn them into drama, but only one truly thrills as if its making it up as it goes along.