“Argo” comes along at the perfect time – depending on what your interests are. The film, which opens with a tense sequence recreating the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by Iranian militants, is timely due to the similarities between the events it depicts and similar events on our actual world stage. Both the attack on the embassy in Libya and the current debate over the proper course of diplomatic action with the Iranian regime weigh heavily on the film – which, if you are hoping to get people to come see your movie, is a very good thing.
Current events aside, “Argo” is first-class entertainment and another chapter in the comeback story of Ben Affleck’s journey from ridiculed leading man to dependable genre director. Affleck ably directs and stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who specializes in extracting Americans from unstable situations. When six diplomats escape the U.S. embassy and find shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador, Mendez and his team hatch a scheme that, had it not actually occurred, would surely be deemed too unrealistic to be in a movie: Mendez will pose as a Canadian filmmaker scouting locations for a “Star Wars” rip-off called “Argo,” fly to Iran, and bring the hostages out as his film crew.
To make the scheme seem credible, he hires a make-up artist who is a friend of the agency (John Goodman) and a legendary film producer (Alan Arkin) to set up a fake production company, option a script, and basically just hang around their fake office in case anyone calls from Tehran to check up on them. These sequences mostly come off as public reading of the script – staged to garner media coverage that will earn the production credibility – and a televised reading of a statement by the militants in Tehran posits a new, inextricable connection between politics and the media. As a result, Hollywood’s role in the mission seems anything but unnatural.
When the mission begins, the tone of the film shifts dramatically. The sequences in Tehran, particularly the film’s climax, are as tense and gripping as anything you will see in a film this year. The final third finds Mendez and the hostages at the airport, navigating a series of increasingly aggressive and skeptical security guards, trying to appear normal and remember their fake identities and back stories. These scenes play to Affleck’s strengths as a director, which largely consist of getting out of the way and letting the terrific script work its magic. Affleck is no auteur – he is more of a craftsman – and we never see his choices on screen. The movie flows naturally, and his lack of showmanship is a wise choice when you have a script this good.
The drama is compelling, mostly because the stakes are so high. In addition to the threat of a diplomatic disaster, we are told repeatedly that, if captured, the hostages will be publicly executed. This is yet another reason “Argo” carries extra weight right now – as opposed to the late ‘90s, when former President Clinton first declassified the details of the operation. After a decade of war and struggle with radical Islamic elements, after 9/11, Daniel Pearl, and recent events in Libya, the images associated with jihadist violence are all too familiar to American audiences. In fact, one might question the responsibility of releasing a film like “Argo” at this particular time in our geopolitical history.
Nearly every Iranian in the film is characterized primarily by his anti-American hostility. There are no fully realized Iranian characters in the film – most are simplistic villains, spewing rage and hatred. Of course, this comes with the territory of a genre film; there must clearly defined heroes and villains. But one particular character, who appears for only one scene, remains lodged in my mind: as the fake film crew wander through a local bazaar, supposedly scouting locations for their film, a shopkeeper demands that the location manager hand over a picture she took of his shop. As his anger increases, his face becomes contorted with rage and he spews hatred in unsubtitled Farsi. This haunting representation of hate echoes our worst fears about militant Islam. In this era of deep, existential tension between Islamic radicals and Americans, it can only enflame the kind of Islamophobia that passes for patriotism. And it indicates that, in spite of the film’s success as a piece of entertainment, a more nuanced approach may have been called for. In the meantime, enjoy “Argo” for what it is – a solid piece of genre filmmaking – and try to leave your politics at the door.
My Rating: See it in the Theater