Ben Affleck’s Argo opens with the image of the long defunct Warner Brothers logo that the studio used in the 1970s. It was upon seeing this blast from the past that I knew this movie was something neat. Ultimately Argo is a double-layered film: a movie wrapped in a movie. And that is what makes it neat. So much so, in fact, that when I examined it closer and found just how many conventional devices the film employs, my instinct was to overlook them. Argo is neat enough to be forgiven many clichés that might sink an inferior movie.
Argo is based on true events, some infamous and some unknown, kept under lock and key by the CIA for the past thirty years. As the world remembers it, Iranian revolutionaries held fifty-two American Embassy workers hostage for a period of 444 days from November 1979 until January 1981. The image of the blindfolded captives, as broadcast on ABC Nightline every day of the ordeal, remains an icon of helplessness that continues to resonate for Americans today.
The events unknown until recently center on the escape of six embassy workers out a back exit. The six were sheltered for weeks at the Teheran residence of the Canadian ambassador before managing to depart Iran and its reign of terror under the guise of a movie crew scouting locations for a putative science-fiction picture and using false Canadian passports – the whole improbable but effective scheme cooked up by the CIA working with Hollywood. Argo reveals the newly declassified details of this great feat.
The hero of the story, CIA Agent Tony Mendez, as played by actor/director Ben Affleck, comes across as the typical battle-weary troubleshooter with a troubled home life, who can always be counted on as the voice of reason in a room full of indecisive bureaucrats arguing and dithering on how best to provide cover for the extraction of the six Americans (or “ex-fils,” a neologism based the inverse of infiltration). Getting approval for the operation from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance is “like talking to the two old fucks on the Muppets,” says Affleck’s CIA superior, played convincingly by Bryan Cranston.
Affleck doesn’t have to reach too far to convey his character’s burnout and lassitude. His sunken-eyed expression says it all. As you might expect, it is his force of will that drives the rescue plan to fruition. At one point, Affleck stares definitively at the fourth wall, as if to say ‘let’s do it.’
Adding a dose of cynicism and black humor are two Hollywood figures, an irreverent make-up artist (John Goodman) and a cantankerous veteran film producer (Alan Arkin). The steadfast Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber) is heroic, as is his young Iranian servant girl, who in one of the movie’s best scenes covers for the houseguests, standing up to questioning by the Iranian secret police, overriding her own conflicted loyalties in the process. The worsening situation tests the resolve of the film’s heroes.
Argo’s genius is in its mosaic of spy intrigue and revolutionary violence and its commentary on Hollywood egotism and the burgeoning popularity of Star Wars-like sci-fi movies. It makes clear that the anti-American demonstrations of the Iranian militants are just as much a type of theater as Hollywood’s overblown science-fiction make-up and movie sets and costumes. At one point a character points to the TV image of the U.S. flag-burning protestors and asks, “you ever think how this is all for the cameras?”
The ever-present stare of the Ayatollah Khomeini, emblem of the repressive regime adorns posters in Teheran. These are similar images to those found (even more threateningly) in 1991’s Not Without My Daughter, also set in the Ayatollah’s Iran. Starring Sally Field (in one of those crusading-mother roles usually assigned to Sally Field, Meryl Streep, or Sissy Spacek), NWMD recounts the true-life tale from the 1980s of an an American woman’s efforts to flee, with her young daughter in tow, Iran and her abusive Iranian husband. Where Affleck in Argo attempts to convey sensitivity toward Iran’s complicated history and its people’s legitimate grievances against the American government NWMD demonizes the Iranian people. In the opening voiceover, Argo is careful to include references to the 1953 U.S.-backed coup d’état against Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq and the subsequent backing of the Shah’s oppressive regime. NWMD leaves these matters unmentioned. This is not to say that Argo is not without negative stereotypes, but Affleck is more thorough at balancing them out with his cultural liberalism.
There are elements of pungent irony: for example, a shot of burka-clad Iranian women eating buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Alan Arkin says of film extras in an unrelated picture he is producing in Africa, “They may be cannibals, but they still want health and dental insurance.” Arkin’s favorite catchphrase becomes the movie’s signature line:: “Argo Fuck Yourself!” As gloomy international events continue to air on the nightly news, Arkin mutters, “John Wayne is in the ground six months, and this is what’s left of America!”