Silver Screen: Argo **1/2
Argo opens with an unfortunately necessary history lesson. Given the prominent role Iran plays as an antagonist in U.S. foreign policy, we probably shouldn't require a primer on the recent history of Iranian-American relations— but we do. (I did, anyway.) In a rush of exposition, director Ben Affleck gives you the Cliff's Notes: Iran's democratically elected government is overthrown with aid from the United States, which helps install a Shah who will cooperate with our plans for their oil. Later, the ailing Shah is deposed when the Iranians rise up to regain control of their country.
That sets the scene for Argo's first and only great sequence, a recreation of the first minutes of the hostage crisis that will last for the remainder the Carter administration, ending early in the Reagan presidency. Throngs of protestors threaten the embassy from without as the remaining diplomats and workers race to find a potential escape. The protestors break through the gates and storm the facility while officials race to destroy classified documents and prepare to be overtaken. It's a tense, well-choreographed scene that forms a coherent mosaic out of the chaotic fragments.
In the melee, six Americans seek asylum at the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). They're safely hidden for the moment, but find themselves ever more at risk as the hostilities outside escalate. Not only are their lives endangered, there's a significant possibility that even a single American harmed could spark a shooting war between the United States and Iran.
Back home, politicians and intelligence officials are occupied with the larger hostage crisis, while a smaller team is assembled to deal with the six refugees still being successfully hidden by our Canadian allies. No one has any real notion of how to extract them from locked-down Iran. “We're looking for the best bad idea,” explains a White House staffer played by Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston.
In response, intelligence op Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a particularly elaborate bad idea. Mendez will enter Iran posing as a Canadian film producer scouting locations for a Star Wars knockoff called Argo. He'll craft fake identities for the six Americans, then bring them out of the country under the auspices of being his Canadian production team. To make the scenario credible, he enlists the aid of Academy Award-winning special-effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who's already done some classified espionage work for the government, and Army veteran and aging producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).
The true story on which Argo is based is a fascinating confluence of politics, diplomacy, spycraft, and entertainment. It illustrates an interesting parallel between the make-believe worlds of Hollywood and espionage, and reveals a fascinating lost chapter in American history that still resonates on the contemporary geopolitical landscape.
And yet, it's not well suited for a movie plot.
Director Affleck has certainly endured his time as a celebrity punching bag, but his mid-career renaissance behind the camera has rightfully elevated his status. Gone Baby Gone was an adept thriller, and The Town was even better. Though he lacks a distinctive style, he's a more-than-competent filmmaker who seems intent on crafting thoughtful stories for grownups.
But, dramatically, the shape of Argo is all wrong. All the most interesting elements of the movie are frontloaded— the embassy takeover, the initial panic, the brainstorming in Hollywood to make the fake Argo seem like a real production. It takes the form of a heist movie, spending its first half on the construction of an elaborate plan and the second half following the plan as it’s put into action. But beyond the obvious suspense-killer that these people obviously made it out alive, as we did not in fact go to war with Iran in 1980, the plot to Argo is dull because the practical application of the plan is not terribly interesting. The last hour of the movie attempts to escalate the mounting dread, but in fact it's basically a bunch of white people walking through the crowded streets of Iran trying to sound Canadian. The big climax of the movie is a half-hour spent watching Affleck try to hustle his charges through airport security, and it's about as much fun as going through airport security. The dullness of the second half confirms the suspicion that Argo is perfectly suited to a hour-long documentary, but not so much a full-length feature.
As for Argo's contemporary resonance, it's a mixed bag. Some lefty journalist types have decried it as warmongering propaganda, but that charge doesn't stick too well. Affleck takes care in the opening moments to note American complicity in the initial overthrow of the government, and includes news footage of some angry Texans beating an innocent Iranian under the guise of patriotism. In the back half of the film, though, the Iranians are portrayed as bearded lunatics shouting angrily in a phlegmy foreign language. That's not to say the revolution was not bloody and intense, only that the movie's objectivity seems to slip a little as the drama dictates that Mendez have some clear antagonists.
If Argo has any pernicious motives, it doesn't seem to be either leftist cultural or moral relativism, nor right-wing war-drum pounding, but the glorification of Hollywood. The running gag is pretty much the same joke beat into the ground: “If you think Iran is tough, you should try Hollywood!” It supports the notion that yes, everyone in Tinseltown is savvier and tougher than you, and confirms that Los Angeles is in fact the center of the known universe. The message, in short: “Three cheers for us!”
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.