History has a way of finding an audience through pop-culture. The true story of Argo, wherein six American diplomats were smuggled out of hostile Iran by the CIA disguised as a Canadian film crew, was declassified seventeen years after it occurred, though I’m sure many Americans even today aren’t aware of the operation’s existence. Actor-turned-director Ben Affleck has successfully publicized the incident in the most extensive and enticing manner available to him: He made a Hollywood movie about it.
The feature film, which stars Affleck as the mastermind and operative behind the ruse, dramatizes these bizarre historical facts with an uneven proportion of veneration and fabrication, touches of levity, and a few incisive jabs at cinema’s inherent fakery. The strongest section of the film, when Affleck’s character goes to Burbank to do pre-production on a pretend sci-fi yarn called Argo, is, witting to the director or not, a pointed examination of how Hollywood turns history into artifice, into consumer escapism.
By the end, however, Affleck diverts from such candor, and recreates the final steps of the rescue with the nervous intensity, yet also the precise narrative tricks and empty gestures of the blockbusters he’s supposedly deriding. It’s tempting to give Affleck too much credit, and posit that the finale’s machinations further his thematic critique, showing a progression from realism to sensationalism. However, I can hardly bring myself to grant amnesty to the man who blighted the world with Gigli and Reindeer Games. I’m half kidding, of course.
Argo opens with the attack on the American Embassy in the Iranian capital on November 4, 1979. The context of that fateful day is cleverly setup in a prologue using storyboards and photographs. As the inhabitants of the building watch solicitously through the windows of their stronghold, an ocean of protestors roar outside the gates before scaling the fortress walls. The trapped employees act pragmatically, burning and shredding important documents, calling for extra security, though none arrives. Before long, the mob have taken the Americans hostage, blindfolded them, and turned their sanctuary into their prison. Affleck stages the reenactment scrupulously and artfully, using nary a note of musical accompaniment, as he allows the terrifying immediacy of the situation to speak for itself.
Back home, Americans are livid. The film utilizes archival footage of spontaneous assaults on Iranians to illustrate the vengeful backlash the crisis engendered in the American people, evoking memories of more recent anti-Arab sentiment. Fortunately, six diplomats managed to escape the embassy during the coup and have found solace at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). The Iranian rebels, employing children in the painstaking task of reassembling the shredded files, will soon discover that six Americans have evaded capture and are hiding out in Tehran.
Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA specialist in “exfiltration”—the art of organizing escapes from enemy territory. In the lead, Affleck goes for affected understatement, but comes off flat, unreadable, and mirthless, his defining characteristics being his beard and shaggy do. Plus, there’s a perfunctory subplot about Mendez’ troubled home life, involving spousal upheaval and a child he only speaks to over the telephone. The film labors to make the family drama an essential part of its meager characterization only to highlight its lack of depth and pertinence.
The aside does serve one important purpose: A call home to his son and a disunited viewing of Planet Of The Apes inspires Mendez’ outlandish stratagem. He proposes that the CIA fund a fake movie that would require shooting locations ideal for Iran’s terrain and climate. Next, they’ll receive phony Canadian passports and identities for the stranded diplomats, assign each a position in the crew, and then Mendez, as “producer”, will fly them all out of Iran himself. It’s a gamble, but in a CIA pitch session where the only other suggestion is escape on bicycles, Mendez delivers the “best bad idea” in the room—one that just might be crazy enough to work. For legitimacy, they’ll need a script, storyboards, shot lists, and advertising.
With the services of producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and Oscar winning effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), Argo emerges as a fake movie with very real consequences. The two showbiz vets, on top of lending the film some invaluable moments of trenchant humor, best epitomize Hollywood as a Mecca of deceit, and the movie observantly intimates that only there, in a dreamland of surface razzle-dazzle, could such a huge lie really be brought off with enough conviction to fool anybody. Transforming actors into preposterous creations, Chambers trades in deception, and Siegel, his corporate counterpart, is head to leagues of charlatans and sharks.
It’s revealing that Affleck truncates the subject matter’s satirical potential in favor of a pulse pounding—and far less resonant—final act. Mendez travels east to rendezvous with the clandestine fugitives (Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, and Christopher Denham), and the movie marches on as straightforwardly as any genre potboiler. The conclusion is foregone, surely, but with every turn of the screw, the director’s studied workmanship increases in transparency (a vital phone call is answered at the last possible moment; the Iranian rebels are either supernaturally perceptive or risibly dimwitted and disorganized, depending entirely on how it will serve Affleck’s suspense schema).
In his auspicious debut, Gone Baby Gone, Affleck showed signs of Scorsese’s streetwise grit and Eastwood’s moral opacity. Argo is thrilling but squandered, an historical recreation that promises cinematic self-reflexivity, but climaxes with the calculated gratification of a Ron Howard crowd-pleaser instead. The director's worthwhile treatise on Hollywood’s garnishing of reality becomes his own final exam in the methods of that very same commercialized illusionism. The film ends with shots of movie merchandise: Do they reflect on our own consumption of synthetic historiography, or do they advertise Argo action figures? In Stores Now.