OK, let’s get this out of the way first – Ben Affleck is still not a very good Director. Despite this, Argo is still a very good film. It’s engaging, funny, and gripping, by turns. It’s meaningful in its style and is edited with flair.
The story itself, based on events surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980, is so outrageous and told well enough that you wonder how it took Hollywood this long to get a screenplay produced. There is an unsettling imbalance of tone and theme that often forces us to shift our expectations of what the film is, or at least what its intentions are, and that shift doesn’t really assist in delivering a payoff worthy of such an investment, but it’s still a bloody good ride nonetheless.
After a brief intro sequence outlining the recent political history of Iran (using a combination of movie storyboard panels and still photos) the film drops us into the middle of a protest in Tehran. A mob of Iranian students supported by the Ayatollah surrounds the US embassy, furious at the escape and subsequent protection of their former dictator. They break through the gates, storm the compound and take the staff hostage. Only six American citizens escape, literally sneaking out the back door and finding refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. Now they’re virtual prisoners, with no way out of the country, and the new regime is closing in on their identities and whereabouts.
Back on home soil, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), a disguise and exfiltration expert, and his supervisor (Bryan Cranston) cook up a just-so-crazy-it-might-work plan to get them home. Mendez wants to fly in to Tehran, meet with the six in secret, and give them new identities as a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran. The very next day, after coaching them on their roles, he would lead them through the heavily guarded airport, hiding in plain sight while being subject to intense scrutiny from customs. As Cranston’s character says at one point, “It’s the best bad idea we’ve got.”
To provide adequate cover for his story, Mendez decides they need to actually begin production on a film. Enlisting the help of his Hollywood FX makeup contact John Chambers (John Goodman) they soon recruit Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) a ball-bustin’, semi-retired film producer, who leads them to the perfect script – the Middle-Eastern tinged sci-fi Argo.
Apart from the general absurdity of the premise, most of the fun in the film is found in this Hollywood section. It’s exhilarating watching the trio lie, spin, wheel and deal their way through LA, knowing that for once all the usual bullshit that goes into producing a film has a very serious purpose. And once all the pieces are in play, you’ve got a fair idea how things are going to work out.
Later in the film, a table read of the script for the press, set up to bolster their story’s credibility, is intercut with disturbing scenes of the US embassy hostages being subjected to a staged and ultimately fake firing squad. It’s disturbing but effective, reminding us that underneath the Hollywood glitz and glamour, real lives are being played with. There are many other facades on display too: the rhetoric and posturing of both governments, the very nature of the CIA and Tony’s role within it, the falseness of showbiz, as well as the literally fake film at the centre of the plot.
Our Argo may tell us it is a film about appearances – being judged on the merits of who you are and what you achieve, as opposed to what you say you’re going to do – but applying this critique to the finished product itself doesn’t reveal much. The film never really stops to explore the ideas it’s raising, preferring to keep the pace clipping along. Some characters seem quite thinly drawn, especially the hostages themselves, and the table read sequence is the only juggling technique used to provide poignancy to the source material.
That sequence is also used to tie together the different tones of the film: often, West Wing-esque politics jumps to Hollywood caper, which then jumps to tense cat-and-mouse games and threats of violence. The film is screaming “Duality!” but never offers up a plausible explanation as to why it’s doing so. It’s confusing to say the least.
Maybe that’s the point, but it’s a point of distraction and doesn’t really assist an otherwise exceptional story. What happened happened – it’s never going to change – and if you’re embellishing a story, the embellishment should be in service of the story, not the person telling it. If Affleck as director, like his character late in the film, had committed more to the original story instead of trying to be so many things at once, he may have settled on a more even tone. It never sends the movie completely off the rails, but they are perhaps unnecessary complications when simplicity would have sufficed.
It’s still great fun, though maybe just not any more than that. The tension after Tony arrives in Tehran is cracking, playing off our expectations and recycling Hollywood cliché to great effect. Arkin, Goodman and Affleck offer up a great camaraderie and all seem to be genuinely enjoying their time onscreen together. Even the scenes in the CIA offices are energetic and dynamic. Essentially, Affleck has wrapped up a complex and slightly bizarre political situation into a highly entertaining heist flick with a showbiz bent, and it may not have been detained at the border of greatness had he believed in the strength of their story just a little more.