*** Warning ‘ere be spoilers ***
Ben Affleck’s Argo takes on a remarkable CIA story, kept secret for 17 years, of how the six Americans who got out of the American Embassy in Tehran at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis were able to escape from their refuge in the Canadian embassy and fly back to America. The trick is a pretense, led by a CIA man played by Affleck himself, that some Canadians have come to Tehran scouting locations for a cheesy sci-fi movie. It’s a big change for Affleck from the moody Boston crime stories that were the substance of his first two directorial efforts, and as a well-paced, nail-biting adventure, Argo succeeds admirably using old-school mainstream movie tactics. With a heavy emphasis on the “old-school” part. For me, this movie set in 1980, seems just a little too much like something from less sophisticated days. Argo has welcome splashes of humour from its Hollywood side represented by John Goodman (as a prosthetics expert who’s helped the CIA with disguises) and Alan Arkin (as a salty aging producer), but otherwise the action and the characters are ultra-square. It’s also pretty safe in America today to make a movie where the villains are Iranians, since there’s been a major new campaign to demonise the country in recent years. (In fairness, Chris Terrio, the screenwriter, working from an article by Joshuah Bearman, does make clear why the young post-revolution Iranians hated America so much.)
The only thing you couldn’t predict is that this movie would have turned out to be such a huge hit with American critics. But since the new Bourne episode fizzled, Taken 2 is a total repeat, and the new Bond isn’t out Stateside yet, people were hungry for something big and exciting on the screen. Affleck is unquestionably dashing and handsome, if a bit stolid, in his late Seventies beard and fluffy hair. Couldn’t Tony Mendez (Affleck’s character) have had a single moment of self-doubt, though? When it’s all over, Argo doesn’t provide much to think about. But let’s give Affleck credit: this is meant to feel old fashioned, and there’s some sophistication in its allusions to period in its style. Affleck strove to give the film stock, camera movement, and handling of crowd scenes a Seventies or Eighties look, and he succeeds.
Maybe the best sequence, especially chilling in the wake of the recent attack on the US embassy in Libya, is the opening one showing realistically how the Iranian mob of demonstrators outside the US embassy in Tehran swarmed over the front gate and then entered in vast numbers, as staff panic inside, having sat there for days apparently without calling in adequate security, evacuated staff, or made up any real plan for an eventuality like this. The demonstrators pour in as staffers feebly struggle to burn or shred the documents. Details of the whole event aren’t complete, but it still feels very detailed and specific to that moment.
It seems the seizure of the embassy has lasted for some time before officials in Washington become fully aware of the six staff members who’ve escaped and start brainstorming about an escape plan for them. CIA staffer Tony Mendez is the only expert on escapes present, and he scoffs at the suggestion of providing the six with bicycles so they can, in the winter, ride to the Turkish border. Deliver the six bikes, provide them with maps, one aide proposes. “Or you could just send them training wheels, and meet them at the border with Gatorade,” Mendez scoffs. He hasn’t a substitute plan yet; it’s when he’s talking long distance to his young son (at his estranged wife’s house) and watching the same TV channel to feel closer to him that he gets the idea: a movie set in the desert. This is where he calls on John Chambers (John Goodman), and the funny meetings in California (set in period with a shot of the then still half-destroyed “HOLLYWOOD” sign) with Chambers and Lester Siegel (Arkin) take place, with the bits of funny dialogue about how being a phony fits you right in and how you could teach a monkey to direct a film in a day.
This part of the story is substantially true. Mendez really did collaborate with these guys to fake a movie production and make it look real by getting hold of a script, producing storyboards, and staging a reading before the press to get publicity about “Argo” being made, an idea Chambers and Siegel celebrate with the toast, “Argo fuck yourself.” What I don’t get is how this is supposed to work as cover if it’s meant to be staged as a Canadian production. What may make this movie play less well in Canada is the way it fudges and underplays the actual role of the Canadians in getting the escapees out.
Not as badly as Argo will play in Iran, perhaps!
There will be some scenes of Chambers and Siegel later on, but we’ll need to hang onto the Hollywood scenes’ humour, because things get pretty nervous and sweaty when the focus shifts to the six Americans hiding out in the Canadian embassy and Tony Mendez’s mission. This is where the movie, though again it’s not particularly original, excels: in showing how scary it would have been for the six with Mendez to visit a crowded bazaar one day “scouting locations” to establish themselves as the skeleton film crew they’ve said they are, and then the next day to go out to the airport and, with great difficulty, go through three layers of security and make it into the plane. The movie slips in some predictable but effective tension-enhancers — last-minute discoveries by the Iranian officials, a final chase at the airport.
All that difficulty didn’t happen, though. The reality gaps are outlined in an article by David Haglund, “How Accurate Is Argo?” The trip through the airport was “smooth as silk,” in the real Mendez’s actual words. But smooth as silk didn’t fit the filmmakers’ idea of an actioner. All the last segment is predictably more manipulative than technically accurate.
Also invented in Hollywood style are aspects of Mendez’s character that give him a conventional story arc — his outsider role at the CIA and his estrangement from his wife, allowing for his heartwarming redemption on both counts at the end. That didn’t happen either, because it wasn’t necessary. So when you watch this movie, you’ll have fun, but put yourself into a square mood and don’t ask too many questions. Personally I’m forced to ask why this may turn out to be more favored by the Academy at Oscar time than Moonrise Kinngdom, The Master, or Looper, though.
DIRECTOR: BEN AFFLECK
WRITER: CHRIS TERRIO FROM ARTICLE BY JOSHUAH BEARMAN
STARS: BEN AFFLECK, BRYAN CRANSTON, JOHN GOODMAN, ALAN ARKIN
RUNNING TIME: 120 MINS.