Today’s cinema adventure: Argo, the winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture, directed (and starring) Ben Affleck and offering a fictionalized chronicle of the real-life rescue of six American refugees from Tehran during the 1979-1980 Iranian hostage crisis. With a screenplay by Chris Terrio (who also won an Oscar for his work) and a talented ensemble cast that includes veteran actors Alan Arkin and John Goodman, as well as acclaimed Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, it was an instant critical and financial success upon its release, revitalizing Affleck’s career and garnering much praise for its intelligent, character-driven approach to the story- though it has also received criticism for its use of embellishments and fabrications to increase the drama of its narrative, as well as for its selective arrangement of facts to maximize its pro-American sentiments.
Based on Tony Mendez’ personal memoir, The Master of Disguise, and Joshuah Bearman’s magazine account of the mission, “Escape from Tehran,” Argo begins with the 1979 storming of Tehran’s U.S. embassy by militants following the Iranian revolution which supplanted the American-backed Shah with radical Islamic cleric Ayatollah Khomeni as leader of the nation. The embassy staff have barely enough time to shred their confidential papers before they are taken hostage by the angry throng, who seek to exchange them to the U.S. for the return of the former Shah, so that he can be tried and executed by the new revolutionary government. Unbeknown to the militants, however, six Americans have managed to escape through a side door, and have found refuge in the Canadian embassy; as the world’s attention turns to the tense diplomatic standoff over the captive diplomats, the C.I.A. tries to develop a plan for the safe extraction of these secret fugitives before the Iranian militants can discover their existence. Called in to consult, “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez hatches an unlikely plot by which the six can be safely flown out of the country under the very noses of the Iranian government; posing as a Canadian film producer, he will enter Iran under the pretext of scouting exotic locations for a new science fiction epic, then- with the aid of falsified passports provided by the Canadian government- the six refugees can depart with him, posing as his film crew. With the help of a Hollywood contact- Oscar-winning makeup designer John Chambers- Mendez enlists a famous producer to help set up a production company for his phony epic, thereby establishing a convincing cover story through the Hollywood publicity machine, and with all the pieces in place, sets out for Tehran to enact his outrageous plan. Before he can succeed, though, he must first convince the six terrified diplomats to cooperate with the scheme and turn them into a believable facsimile of a movie crew; to further complicate matters, the ever-changing political tides at home threaten to undermine C.I.A. support for the mission, and the Iranians- who are painstakingly restoring the shredded embassy records- are on the verge of discovering that there are six Americans still unaccounted for and at large somewhere within the city. With time running out and no other option besides eventual capture and probable execution, there is no choice but to follow through with their desperate ruse and hope that their luck holds out.
In crafting a screenplay from these true-life events, Terrio has created, in essence, a caper film; the story is molded in the classic form of an adventure in which a diverse team of mismatched characters must work together to execute an elaborate scheme, wherein intricate planning and precise timing- and a healthy dose of good luck- are required to achieve success. The premise is not far removed from such films as The Sting or Ocean’s 11, except that instead of a heist the players are attempting an escape. Since the outcome is a matter of relatively well-known history, the challenge is to generate suspense as the action unfolds; in order to achieve this, the writer wisely chose to focus much of his attention on the personalities of the people involved, heightening the suspense with a personal dynamic that places much of the interest in seeing how these various characters manage to rise to the challenges they face. This allows for a strong sense of ensemble among the actors and a layered tapestry of nuanced performances, bringing the plot to life with a richness that evokes the character-driven political dramas of the era in which Argo takes place.
The other tactic by which the movie creates suspense, while it is standard practice in the dramatization of true events, could be considered a bit of a cheat; Terrio has fabricated a number of circumstances within the narrative that did not occur in real life. The six American escapees were never in imminent danger of detection by the Iranian militants, nor was there any suspicion or investigation of the Canadian embassy while they were lodged there; the C.I.A. never withdrew support for the rescue mission, and the Carter administration approved the plan well before the eleventh-hour climax portrayed in the film; and when the time came for the clandestine travelers to make their escape, they walked easily onto the plane and flew out of the country without so much as a second glance by the security at the airport. Using artistic license is certainly an accepted method- even an expected one- for creating a more eventful and exciting film narrative, and it serves well in Argo, though historical purists may quibble; more questionable are the deliberate omissions and slanted characterizations that diminish the real-life role played by the Canadians in the operation, cast the British and other governments in an unsympathetic light, and depict the Iranians in a manner which reinforces an already problematic cultural bias. Nevertheless, setting aside questions of fairness or historical accuracy in what is, after all, a movie “based on” a true story (as opposed to a recreation of actual events), Terrio’s screenplay is a superb piece of Hollywood myth-making, building a gripping and compelling story out of its concern for character instead of the intricacies of the plot, and doing it with a great deal of intelligence and- both surprisingly and refreshingly- a great deal of humor.
As for Affleck’s direction of the piece, he picks up the obvious connection of Argo to seventies cinema and uses it as the basis for his mise-en-scène; though modern day technical trickery has been used to achieve certain ends (such as the transformation of the Istanbul filming locations into the city of Tehran and the dilapidated state of the iconic “Hollywood” sign- another historical inaccuracy, since the landmark was actually restored a full year before the events depicted in Argo), the visual milieu of his movie is constructed with a deliberate eye towards capturing the time and place in which it takes place. There are no ostentatious displays of effects wizardry, no high-def action sequences designed to dazzle and distract; Argo is made to look and feel like a product of seventies sensibility, with influences drawn from such films as All the President’s Men and an authentically grainy look to Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography- achieved by shooting on film, cutting the images down by half, then blowing them up 200%. Affleck heavily utilizes authentic archival footage from the real historical events, both within the film (as TV newscasts) and as a guide for recreating the environment; the costumes (by Jacqueline West) are superbly realized recreations of late-seventies fashion, executed with authenticity rather than caricature (though in some instances- such as the scene in which a bogus cast, decked out in a ludicrous, disco-influenced wardrobe of campy science fiction designs, assembles for a read-through of the fictional film- the line between caricature and authenticity is non-existent); and all the trappings of the film’s environment- the architecture of the carefully chosen locations, the sensibility of the décor, even the artistic style of the various corporate logos and advertising which are almost omnipresent in the background- contribute tremendously towards transporting us back to this not-too-distant time in our cultural history.
Affleck’s work in coordinating all these technical asepects is impressive enough in itself, but his handling of Argo is also polished from the perspective of cinematic storytelling. He keeps the movie moving at a pace which is tight but never hurried, superbly utilizing cross-edited footage to move different elements of the story simultaneously; he captures the claustrophobic experience of the American refugees with tight close-ups and jerky hand-held shots, he suggests the bustle of governmental bureaucracy with scenes of offices in constant motion and characters endlessly walking down long corridors (bristling with purpose, of course), and he evokes the loneliness of his protagonist’s chosen career with artfully composed scenes of his isolation in the midst of crowds, sumptuous rooms, and exotic locations. It’s a strong, workmanlike effort, undoubtedly the young director’s best work to date, and though it is not exactly visionary or groundbreaking in nature, it is exactly fit to the material he is presenting; his omission as a nominee for the Best Director Oscar is certainly an oddity, particularly considering that he won the honor at many of the other awards ceremonies and that his film eventually took the Best Picture prize- though such a seeming paradox is not unheard of, as Oscar trivia buffs will quickly point out. Honors and awards aside, Argo is a career-changing work for Affleck, and will doubtless provide the momentum for future projects which will (hopefully) stretch his artistic boundaries even further.
The cast, a crack ensemble of skilled professionals ranging from old hands to promising newcomers, does an excellent job across the board; there is a singleness of vision in the performances that allows each individual player to shine without any one of them seeming to stand out above the others. The most screen time, of course, belongs to Affleck, and though his self-casting as the half-latino Mendez has generated some raised eyebrows from those who feel a more culturally appropriate choice would have been better, he makes for a likable hero, a man whose personal issues provide the impetus to redeem himself through his professional duties. Bryan Cranston is memorable as Mendez’ superior, fleshing out what amounts to a stock character with rich personality, and Victor Garber is the picture of genteel compassion as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who harbors the fugitive Americans and- historically, at any rate, if not within the context of Argo– was the primary engineer of the plan to get them to safety. As the harried refugees, a sextet of actors- Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, and Kerry Bishé- creates distinctive portraits of each one despite a shortage of screen time, with McNairy given the most prominent of these roles as a skeptical holdout to the plan who ends up playing a crucial part in its success. A number of familiar faces also turn up in smaller parts, but the film’s biggest stars, in the two most colorful roles, are the great Alan Arkin and John Goodman, as the two Hollywood players who make Mendez’ subterfuge possible. In a movie that casts the movie industry itself in a heroic role, it is only fitting that its representatives should be larger than life, and both of these fine actors fit the bill. Goodman is characteristically robust and colorful as makeup designer John Chambers, but Arkin is particularly effective as fictional producer Lester Seigel (in real life the producer of the bogus movie was impersonated by an associate of Chambers’ named Robert Sidell), letting us see the pull of a deeper purpose in his choice to become involved with the mission.
Argo is a movie that is hard to fault, in terms of execution. It features top-notch work all around and tells a story which is important to American cultural identity and has clear implications within the current political situation (in regards to the still-strained relationship with Iran). It addresses, by implication, the consequences of former American policies in the Middle East, and it offers a chance to cheer for heroic deeds that transcend the ever-shifting needs of politics. For my own part, I can admire the work done here by Affleck and company, but I can’t help but wish it had been done without the omissions and exaggerations that create a false impression of the roles of various participants in the saga- both national and individual. Drama, traditionally, has always played fast and loose with facts in the interest of telling a good story, but this particular story may be a bit too close to home for such tactics to be entirely appropriate, and as a result, no matter how effective Argo is as entertainment, it smacks, vaguely, of propaganda. Though it is an exemplary piece of intelligent popular filmmaking, Affleck’s movie panders more than a little to its audience in the way that it manages to avoid taking either a liberal or conservative stance on its subject, adopting populist attitudes and embracing clichéd assumptions, and presenting America in a way that allows us to recognize its flaws while still feeling good about it. As a result, it narrowly misses the mark of true greatness and instead settles firmly on the ground of romanticized dream factory escapism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; far too few big film projects achieve that ideal with as much success and integrity as Argo. Clearly, given its tally of major industry awards, it’s a movie that strikes all the right chords, and even if it does so by means of manipulation, that is, after all, what filmmakers do. Nevertheless, of the six (out of nine) nominees for the Best Picture Oscar of 2012 that I have thus far seen, Argo would have been my last choice for the winner. It’s a very good movie, solid, polished, and safe; but if you expect to be blown away- as the accumulated hype may by now have led you to- you are likely to wonder what all the fuss was about.