REVIEW: With ‘Argo,’ the Film’s the Thing
As of this writing, Ben Affleck’s Argo is exceeding expectations at the box office, which is great news; this is probably the most important film about American foreign policy, specifically our devolving war with Islam, in recent memory. No, scratch the ‘recent.’ Make that just ‘in memory.’
Right from the start, using semi-animated storyboards and old photographs to aid exposition, Affleck ensures that both sides of the struggle between Iran and the U.S. are given a fair hearing. As the film flitted through images, guided by an Iranian-American woman’s voiceover, I was as impressed as ever at Hollywood’s ability to condense so much complexity into a series of pithy loglines that can be instantly understood even by those with no knowledge of what Iran’s modern history has been or, more importantly, what our nefarious role was in causing the Islamic Revolution.
You’ve seen this type of preamble before in historical movies, when the last image expands into the main narrative, in this case a heart-jolting street riot surrounding the beleaguered U.S. embassy in Tehran right before it fell. But you haven’t seen it quite like this. The sequence is a masterpiece of editing and sound design, so smooth and elegant that it became one of those moments when I wish I could have aimed a remote at the theater screen to back up and watch it again.
The era that Argo examines faithfully is germane to these weeks leading up to the 2012 presidential election. It could be argued that we are living in a mirror of those times. I’ve read enough old-school Republican claptrap that states we are, and worse, with a “corrupt,” intellectual head of state who is weak and incapable of ruling a country mired in terrible economic woes and overall stagnation. Because my father was working with the RNC in 1979-80, and had some hand in ousting the Democrats both from the White House and Congress, I have been apprehensive for the last year or so that some upset in the Middle East similar to the Iran hostage crisis would be exacerbated by those angry, rich old men who so despise Obama with a view to overthrowing him, just as they did Jimmy Carter.
The basis from my accusation is that many of those same angry rich men I believe manipulated the situation in Iran in 1980 to get rid of one of the smarter, well-intentioned presidents we have had in the modern era were later implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal. For those unfamiliar with that unsavory, moldy morsel of Saint Ronald’s myriad Machiavellian wrongdoings, what happened is his administration sanctioned the selling of arms to the Islamic Republic despite what they did to our embassy and its staff, and funneled the money to the Contras in Nicaragua, who were trying to overthrow a communist regime in that country. Reagan did this covertly— it was not only grossly immoral but illegal—via an ultra-rightwing Republican PAC, which was a client of my father’s ad agency, where I worked briefly as a young man. This deal is reasonably believed to have been part of the quid pro quo arrangement for the Iranians having held the hostages for long enough over the course of 1980 for the Republicans to undo Carter.
Let me be clear: I don’t think the Republicans staged the taking of hostages from our embassy, but I do think they seized the situation shortly afterwards and used it to their political advantage at home. That it was a ‘happy accident’ is clear by the painstaking reenactment in Argo of the chaotic tsunami that took over the embassy, which the end credits likewise take great pains to show was based on photographs taken at the time of the scaling of its walls. The Republicans likely controlled the aftermath, those four hundred and forty-four days of torpid anxiety for the nation, through the Texan good ol’ boys in the oil business with their deep roots in the Middle East. That the hostages were released on the day of Reagan’s inauguration like so many peace doves was, I believe, a gesture redolent of the sort of cynicism and swagger that would come to define that Alzheimer-riddled president’s era.
It appears that we are clear of any similar sort of shenanigans in this election, although I did experience a minor jolt of apprehension a few weeks ago during the storming of our consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The killing of our ambassador and other consular staff is believed to have been Islamic extremists taking advantage of a mob protesting The Innocence of Muslims—in other words, an external force working a separate agenda. Sure enough, Romney immediately tried to use the incident for political advantage, but luckily it backfired and worked against him.
Indeed, it is important to stay for the end credits of Argo because Jimmy Carter himself relates in a voiceover how frustrating it was that he couldn’t immediately take credit for rescuing those six consular staffers who had managed to slip out and take refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. I would add that it is also ironic and sad; after all, this is a man who spent his post-presidency years building housing for the poor, rather than retiring to his ranch in disgrace or to battle degenerating mental health like most of his Republican counterparts in the modern era. He is a good man who got a raw deal from a bunch of well-heeled thugs. “But what’s important is that in the end we got them home safe and sound,” Carter concludes with a characteristic lack of bitterness.
There is some legitimate discussion as to whether Ben Affleck was the right choice to play the lead role, Tony Mendez, the CIA ‘exflitration’ specialist who came up with the idea to create a fake Canadian movie crew ostensibly location scouting in Tehran, and then personally get the six refugees out. While I did enjoy Affleck’s performance during the film, it was because of his presence rather than his acting; he has never been more pleasing to look at with that foppish hipster hair and beard. Otherwise, his stony-faced turn is at odds with a man who is apparently struggling with internal demons, a character arc that is never fully explored or resolved, to the film’s detriment. He’s a live-action mannequin. His talents might have been better decked if he had stayed behind the camera and directed his buddy Matt Damon, and given the role just that much more scope to elicit much-needed pathos.
The Hollywood portion is as delightful as the sequence of getting the refugees out of Tehran is gripping in a rather formulaic Hollywood thriller way. The fake-film-crew scheme is so harebrained and implausible that if this weren’t based on a true story complete with the authority of a former president’s voiceover during the end credits, you would think it hackneyed. To sit in the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and watch Alan Arkin and John Goodman do their producer shtick like a Laurel and Hardy soft-shoe routine was particularly entertaining. This was also one of the few times I was able to follow the technical jargon without thinking, “Huh? Well, I guess that sounded right…” like I might during a legal or medical drama.
If I distance myself from the personal involvement I have in the film—that this is about the business I work in, an era I remember vividly, and a situation I was close to, however tangentially—I have to agree somewhat with Richard Brody, who wrote in The New Yorker that Argo “is an undigested mass of information, thrown together with skill and care but without thought, without perspective.” Brody then goes on to explain that what he means by perspective is the utter lack of subjectivity, not that the film itself lacks perspective on what happened, in which case I would disagree with him.
Argo’s lack of humanness is both the fault of Affleck’s mannequin performance and Chris Terrio’s script in general. The dogged adherence to the plot and the faithful recreation of events means that the film begins to take a serious nosedive towards the middle of the second act, but then is pulled up again when they make it out of Tehran by a hair’s breadth, largely thanks to the native Iranian delusion that their country is so fabulous that a Western film crew would actually consider filming a sci-fi flick (I mean, really… of all plausible genres) in their grand bazaar in the midst of such violent chaos, despite bodies dangling from construction cranes… It is truly the most absurd scenario and a complete miracle that it was pulled off.
But it only appears to be a complete miracle, because that nail-biting sequence when they flee Tehran is as much a fabrication as the contrived script for the movie they are pretending to scout for. According to the real Tony Mendez on the C.I.A. website, the exit went “as smooth as silk,” something I do not doubt; oddly enough, I have firsthand experience of the magical ‘open sesame’ effect being a Western filmmaker can have on officials at besieged airports in regions in the throes of an Islamic uprising, most notably when I had to flee Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, in January of 1990 without a confirmed seat on one of the two flights leaving that day.
While the flagrant distortion of actual events undermines the film’s claim of authority somewhat, the fact is without that contrived, color-by-numbers thriller sequence Argo would fail, so I allow the contrivances. The audience clapped in relief when they made it out, and I will admit I joined them.
A far more effective and compelling drama about our war with Islam and hostage taking is Michael Winterbottom’s little-seen A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, the wife of a journalist who was beheaded by extremists in Pakistan. And the reason it is so much more effective is because of that personal perspective Brody rightly sees lacking in Argo. The macro examination of what a heavily pregnant woman experienced in a strange and hostile land is, in the end, so much more wrenching and tangible, but also far less entertaining.
And that’s the bottom line with Affleck as he ascends to the pantheon of bankable Hollywood directors of serious award-worthy fare: He is cleverly sticking to his bailiwick, the thriller, which is clearly close to his heart and a genre he understands instinctively. His work is above all entertaining, but he doesn’t make crap—he holds out for the right stuff, and that is admirable.
I think Argo stands a good chance of being nominated for Best Picture, but I doubt it’s going to win anything in the major categories. I’ll bet there will be a few nods in the tech categories, probably for Rodrigo Prieto’s superb camerawork and the smooth-as-silk editing, which goes a long way to moving the piece forward and saving it from its lack of emotional depth.
If it weren’t for that paucity of subjective perspective, and for Affleck’s mannequin performance, I might give Argo a Wow. But I have to admit I was expecting more, especially after all that hullabaloo from the festivals, so I’m going to hand it a