[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT CAUGHT UP ON THEIR NEWS FROM 1980].
I had the opportunity to see an advance screening of Ben Affleck’s new movie Argo last night, followed by a Q & A with Affleck, and the subject matter as well as some of how it was handled I think will make this film of some interest to readers of this blog. Argo‘s story is so outlandish that it would make a totally implausible movie plot if it didn’t happen to be true. Six Americans escaped the U.S. Embassy in Tehran as it was overrun in 1979, and hid for months in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The film is about how they were rescued: the CIA created a fake film company to work on a fake science fiction film for which they faked a Canadian crew scouting potential film locations in Tehran. A dummy production company, press events, storyboards, a real script, and many other details went into building the background for this film, all designed to provide cover for taking the six Americans right out the front door, as it were. The operation remained classified until 1997.
The first thing about the film I really liked is that it opens with context. It would have been easy to start with the fall of the Embassy, to make or allow the Iranians to be simple villains, standard action-movie ‘bad guys,’ but Affleck chose to open with a brief summary of the years before the revolution: Mossadegh’s time as the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran; the U.S. led coup that overthrew him and installed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Shah; the years after that when the shah tried to westernize, protests grew, and the shah’s infamous SAVAK (secret police/domestic security) arrested and tortured more and more people as the U.S. continued to support his regime; the U.S. asylum given to the shah after his regime fell. The presentation is simple, brief, there is no analysis, but as a lens through which to view the film that follows, it’s important and it’s presented objectively. Although Argo does not shy away from moments of cruelty and brutality, it also shows from the start that there were legitimate grievances driving what happened.
It is tempting to critique the film for the absence of any major, fully fleshed out, Iranian characters – the largest role is that of Sahar, a housekeeper for the Canadian Ambassador who knows about the Americans hiding out in the Ambassador’s home and faces pressure to give away their secret – but the story is about the rescue mission, about the rescuers and the rescued, so it is also tempting to forgive the omission. There are certainly depictions of angry mobs and harsh Revolutionary Guards, of street executions and bodies hanging from cranes in Tehran, but – and I know this is not the highest bar to clear – the depiction is not as flat as in your standard Hollywood movie. The context provided by the opening sequence, as well as by subtle choices in background dialogue and images, keeps it from straying into ‘America Good, Iran Evil’ territory. In one scene, a man chases down one of the American women in a rage in the bazaar, terrifying her. He appears at first as just an angry face shouting in a foreign language, but what he is shouting is that the shah murdered his son with an American gun.
It’s not heavy-handed, and I’ll allow that my interpretation may be colored by my own knowledge of the history, but I did not get the sense that Iran was being villainized. What Argo shows is a bad, ugly situation, a terrifying one for the Americans in Tehran, but one we were not blameless in bringing about. I also really appreciated the resolution of the housekeeper’s story. She survives, but a brief glimpse of her near the end of the film quietly shows the cost to her of protecting the Americans and the Canadians for whom she worked. It is not showy – little of what Affleck does is showy – but enough to provoke thought in an observant viewer.
As a movie, Argo is part caper, part political thriller, part deadpan farce. The pieces balance nicely. There are moments of comedy, and a well-built and extended suspense when the operation finally goes down. There are elements for the political wonks, for the Hollywood wonks, and for Canadians everywhere. The depiction of government agencies is subtly tongue-in-cheek and provides much of the dark humor of the movie. It includes peeks at the CIA, the White House, and the State Department (including one meeting before which Mendez’s boss – played by the always excellent Bryan Cranston – warns him to expect to feel like he’s dealing with Waldorf and Statler). The image of Hollywood is less subtle and more overtly funny, with John Goodman and Alan Arkin providing most of the real levity. Bits of Canadiana are peppered throughout the movie, appropriately as the whole operation was enabled by Canada in several important ways, starting with the Canadian Ambassador’s decision to hide the Americans at great personal risk, and going right through the aftermath, in which Canada had to take full credit for the rescue so that the CIA’s involvement could be kept quiet for the protection of the hostages still in Tehran at the time.
Affleck is understated and quietly expressive as Tony Mendez (if perhaps a bit too tall and handsome to be fully believable as the blend-in-anywhere ‘gray man’) and he is surrounded by a stellar lineup of character actors, with notable performances from, in addition to Cranston, Arkin, and Goodman, Zelko Ivanic, Titus Welliver, Clea DuVall, Kyle Chandler, and Victor Garber, among many others. The setting – sets, set dressing, costumes, props, hair, etc – is meticulously arranged. It feels real, and lived in, and not ostentatious or gimmicky. (The eyeglasses and hair and mustaches almost seem ostentatious until you look at actual photos from 1979-80 and realize whoa, nope, they actually looked like that. The glasses really were that big, the hair that unflattering, the mustaches that bushy…)
During the Q&A, Affleck alluded to some of the liberties taken with the story, some falling under the category of ‘minor alterations for the purposes of narrative clarity,’ some clearly meant to build drama. I do think some of the changes might not have been necessary – for example, a more boilerplate chase scene was substituted for a mechanical problem in one place where I think the true story could have been used to create greater psychic tension – but changes to the story are inevitable and inoffensive. This is, after all, a film built to please a large audience, not a documentary about the operation, and creative license goes with the territory.
In a nutshell, I thought the movie was well done and enjoyable, and I would urge viewers to pay attention to the subtle details – they contribute much to the experience, and I do worry that many of them might be lost on a lot of audiences. Having summed that up, there is one last point I want to discuss, which is more about art writ large than this film in particular.
Mr. Affleck noted in the Q&A that he wanted to keep his own politics, his own views, out of the film, and just tell the story. I think that was likely the right move for this particular story, but I hope in the future, he allows more of his own point of view to color his films. Argo is entertaining, but for art to be truly great, it must challenge us, give us new ways of looking at problems, pose questions, make arguments. An informed argument intelligently presented can spark debate, or make your audience think, as great books or articles can do. A strong point of view in a painting or a piece of music or a poem can have an effect on the broader debate in society. Great films can do the same, although it’s only rare filmmakers who have the capacity.
I think Affleck has it. His work on this film, as well as his prior features Gone Baby Gone and the The Town have shown him to be quite capable with the structural and psychological aspects of filmmaking, with pacing and tone as clear strengths of his work as a director. He paces the action in his films adeptly: the North End chase scene in The Town is taut to the point of nail-biting, one of the great chase scenes for my money, and the climax of Argo has a more (appropriately) slow-burning edge-of-your-seat kind of tension. He also has a deft hand at establishing tone: the sadness and frustration of the decay of the working class community in Gone Baby Gone, the way class juxtaposition in The Town inspires a tension of mixed rage and aspiration, the very current-feeling sense of fear of being American in a hostile place in Argo (all the more evocative for being a milieu we at least helped to create for ourselves, in Iran then as in more places than I’d like to think about now). He works with his actors to create very believable emotions. He is clearly skilled at coordinating all the many details of script and cast and location and costumes and all those thousand things that go into making a movie. From what I saw tonight, he also seems to possess the intelligence and the thoughtfulness required to make him one of the great directors.
Affleck spoke intelligently about both filmmaking and geopolitics. As concerns this film in particular, he clearly has great admiration for people like Mendez who dedicate (and risk) their lives in service to this country, and has thought a lot about what they do and how it affects them and their families. He was a Middle East Studies major in college, and maintains an interest in the region and a more-than-casual grasp of current affairs – he touched on the situation in Syria and the 2009 protests in Iran, among other things, during the discussion. He does his homework: his aid work in the Democratic Republic of Congo – counter to the trend of well-meaning but misdirected celebrity charity projects – is well-thought-out, evidence-based, and focused on supporting and expanding the capacity of good local programs and initiatives. In short, he seems to be smart, well-informed, and socially and politically conscious; Argo is a great story and a good film, but my main takeaway from seeing it is that I hope that in the future, Affleck lets more of his own ideas and argument into his work, because I think he has it in him to make a great film.