There has been so much hoopla constructed around Ben Affleck’s “Argo”. most of it concentrated on the meaningless and continuously distasteful circus that is the Hollywood Awards Season- the seemingly year-round orgy of masturbatory, unmerited self-congratulation -with much of this attention based upon the premise that the director-star has been unilaterally snubbed in the proper acknowledgement of his genius by that convenient piñata of the culturally clueless, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, that proper response to and calm consideration of the genuine merits or deficiencies of the film have been effectively obscured by the popular media.
This is a shame as the film is a welcome throwback to that most abused of contemporary movie genres- the political thriller -currently the dumping ground of generic plot lines choked with a mind-numbing quantity of unstoppable “rogue” assassins, soldiers, spies and Tom Cruise creating explosive, noisome and mind-numbingly identical catastrophic mayhem all in the service of “covert” operations. (More than a few Hollywood screenwriters truly are in need of a dictionary to properly define that term.) It is also refreshing that “Argo” is mercifully founded in solid historical facts and thus is a refreshing exception to the current slavishness to increasingly predictable movie thriller formulas that, ironically, tend to thrill less with every new rendition of the same worn genre tropes overused to the point of creative exhaustion.
Or so one is led to believe.
“Argo” relates the story of the so-called “Canadian Caper” in which six members of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran were forced to flee a revolutionary-fed mob which stormed the grounds and took most of the diplomatic personnel hostage, the fugitive six making their way to safe, secretive hiding ground, first with the British and soon after in divided quarters in the residences of Canadian diplomats, including that of Ambassador Ken Taylor. The bulk of the film depicts the passage of time with the increasingly fiery atmosphere of revolutionary fervor sweeping across much of Iran while the CIA works to find a plan to safely extricate the six without endangering the fate of the remainder of those held hostage in secreted locations, led by agency exfiltration expert Tony Mendez who formulates a plan to put together a fictitious SF movie project- named “Argo” -in which the fugitive six might be spirited out of Iran masquerading as the key members of the film’s crew.
There is no denying that the film is technically proficient, made with a dogged propulsive energy which keeps the imponderables of the plot at bay during its running time, but unfortunately, the movie does not fare well under even cursory post-viewing scrutiny; a situation that might have been unnecessary had not the filmmakers conceded to the most elementary of film thriller clichés; the last-second razor’s edge escapes overlapping in such quantity in the final half hour that the film barely escapes self-parody, though it does manage to relinquish all hints of credibility.
Being that the film rather casually abandons historic fact in the service of obvious and tiresome Hollywood thriller devices, “Argo” degenerates from potentially instructive historic docudrama to mere commercial thriller; the type of film which ultimately succeeds or fails on the visceral grip it induces on the viewer and under these terms the film admittedly manages a great deal of tension, especially during the opening scenes depicting the events of Nov. 4, 1979 when the revolutionary protesters in Tehran overran the U.S. Embassy while the staff inside is frantically attempting to shred and incinerate rooms full of confidential documents. This chilling sequence is particularly well staged by Affleck, foregoing the fashionable headache inducing jittery camera work so prevalent with contemporary directors who mistake vertigo for suspense; though Rodrigo Prieto’s camera is constantly on the move, it’s in the service of accentuating the frenzied panic of the sequence, not to obscure those actions through artificial (and meaningless) spasmodic aesthetics.
The craftsmanship brought to the production maintains a satisfying level of dramatic tension in both the Iranian and Langley (CIA headquarters) sequences, but then something peculiar happens which unravels much of the focus of the film and damagingly alters the tone of the story, and that is the introduction of Hollywood as a major player which spends equal time in engaging in intrusive narcissistic self-absorbed “insider” color commentary as in focusing on the intelligence work at hand. While the falsification of a film project and the participation of make-up icon John Chambers are not in question, the appearance of producer Lester Siegel is, as he is a fabrication of the imagination; a supposedly humorous bellwether to the (current) filmmakers’ assumption of the public’s less-than-stellar opinion of the American film industry and a sounding board of borscht belt-level schtick, reducing the eventual participation of the Hollywood principals to seem as if they were equal halves of a roadshow production of “The Sunshine Boys”. Self-congratulatory quips gently poking at the Hollywood hands that feed the filmmakers while simultaneously applauding the very same industry for its resourcefulness and patriotic commitment is not a particularly laudatory excuse for the upending of the deserved historical balance when one considers that many of the most essential people involved in the real story have been erased and ignored; most importantly Canadian diplomat John Sheardown.
By undercutting an even reasonable fidelity to historical facts, Affleck’s film becomes a confused study in contradictions. Why, for instance, open the film with a documentary, historical prologue of the timeline of events which precipitated the political tensions depicted in the film if the intention of the narrative is a straight fictionalization? (The fact that there are many factual errors even in this background recounting presents its own set of problems.) If the intention of the film is, for once, to portray the CIA as the saviors of an untenable international crisis, then why start your film pointing out that they are responsible for planting the seeds leading directly to that very crisis? (Perhaps for the same reason the characters constantly mock Hollywood, yet the audience is expected to applaud the same movie crowd as instrumental in being an international savior.) If the movie is intended, not as a representation of real events, but a fiction based on fact, then why end the film with a series of title cards indicating the fates of the individual characters and then show comparative photos of the actors and their real-life counterparts?
Chris Terrio’s screenplay is an model example of Hollywood revisionism defined by the act of reduction. (The film is an ironic representation of the axiom stated in John Ford’s prescient “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”) When discarded elements of the real-life events are far more dramatic than their refashioned narrative doppelgangers; what is the logic for such a radical level of editorial fictionalization? Again, the predominant question arises (as if did with James Cameron’s disastrously misconceived “Titanic”): why spend the enormously protracted effort and substantial financial investment to develop and produce a factually based film which filmmakers then feel lacks a sufficiently compelling story without radical alterations that will betray the original material? Surely there was more in the original story than an opportunity for exhaustive padding with the most rudimentary of overused commercial thriller devices.
Worse yet, is Terrio’s complete inattention to personal detail. The film makes the fatal mistake of never separating the hostages as individuals, making an empathy outside of nationalistic origins impossible; which has the unfortunate effect of creating a very jingoistic tone to the film, in which factual fictionalization within the script is specifically designed to create blatant cultural distortions by which the filmmakers might create greater excitement in inciting the audience to respond negatively to, not merely the dangerous radical antagonists, but an entire people. By the end of the film, the six diplomats remain ciphers (as does, disgracefully, Ambassador Taylor, who in his heroic capacity is literally reduced to the visible importance of a hotel bellhop) as do their Iranian counterparts; the modern equivalent of primitive cinema heroes and villains- one almost expects the appearance of struggling heroines tied to railroad tracks by mustache twirling baddies, so simplistic is the cultural view in the film. By the almost invisible character definitions in the script, all Americans are good, all Iranians pop-eyed, murderous zealots. This is expressed quite openly in a sequence involving the entire phoney film crew taking a stroll through a public bazaar on the pretext of strengthening their cover story by engaging in scouting filming locations; the result of this excursion of which is a riotous explosion of hatred by every citizen in the immediate surroundings. The sequence is frightening and intense, but also fictitious, a shameless invention used only to demonstrate how bloodthirsty the entire population is, though dramatically it undercuts the credibility of the story and Mendez’ competence; just why would he needlessly publicly expose the diplomats to a violent population whose only purpose (as dramatized) is to seek out and kill Americans?
This cloddish level of conceptual thinking extends to undercutting the realism which Affleck energetically achieves in his mise-en-scene, though Terrio and Affleck’s insistence on capitulating to low-level spy movie machinations- force feeding the story with preposterously conceived hair-breadth perils -ultimately violates any possibility of narrative logic; at one point, ruinously depicting Mendez as an irresponsible imbecile when he insists on moving forward with the exfiltration despite being informed that the mission has been cancelled. Just how he expects the diplomats to escape and survive without tickets or contacts is a mystery answerable only that it is yet another cheap, manipulative feint the film enthusiastically embraces as Affleck betrays his own subject for the chance at a slam-bang action finale. Nor does Ken Taylor escape contemptuous alteration by, during a tense period. threatening to close the embassy and effectively abandoning the six diplomats to the wolves; an unthinkable notion, insultingly attributed to the real-life hero of the story, but consistent with the foolhardy method in which the filmmakers abuse history in the service of momentary narrative screw tightening.
Ben Affleck performance is competent enough- finally abandoning the cloying air of self-satisfaction that has dogged most of his previous work -in the central role of CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, managing to handle the covert intelligence facets of the role with a convincing, stubborn and committed edge, though Affleck fails to delineate the character outside of his professional functions, rendering the sequences of Mendez as both father and husband ill-defined and therefore needless distractions to the primary narrative line. With John Goodman, there exists a different though interesting situation; an intensely likable actor, as John Chambers, Goodman is appealingly gregarious, as is his specialty, but he brings nothing to the role we haven’t seen in a dozen recent interpretations by him, as if each role finds definition in the same behavioral and reactive buttons that entertain the viewer but ultimately fail to illuminate the character beyond surface pleasures. Alan Arkin as fictitious film producer Lester Siegel fares worse; this once vital actor- in the late 60’s to early 70’s, one of the best reasons to go to the movies -has succumbed to narcoleptic strolling through roles, never raising the level of his role above that of curmudgeonly smart-aleck, a major disappointment since he has the most latitude in interpreting his role as the character of Lester Siegel is a complete invention of the screenwriter.
Is this intended as legitimate docudrama or spy movie tomfoolery? There is room for both in the cinema, but the method of the filmmakers seems intent on blurring the distinction in an attempt to satisfying the visceral appetite for both while equally cheating on historical nourishment for the mind. As a filmmaker, Ben Affleck is well adorned in the Hollywood fashion of empty sledgehammer thrills for their own sake, but as a creative artist yearning for profundity and touched with finesse, this director still wears no clothes.