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Film Review: Argo

Argo (2012; Directed by Ben Affleck)

There’s a fantastic, ideologically-rich moment at the absolute climax of Ben Affleck’s third film as a director, the generally fantastic Argo, which summarizes its impact in one scene and therefore must be discussed, spoilers be damned.  Detained by Revolutionary Guards at the final checkpoint before embarking on a Swiss Air flight that will free them from chaotic Iran months after the overthrow of the Shah in late 1979, a group of six American diplomats and the CIA agent assigned to get them out must sell the revolutionaries on their cover story for being in the country.

Speaking in fluent Parsi, one of the diplomats tells the guards that they are a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Middle-Eastern-tinged science-fiction adventure. He shows them the script and storyboards, and gives them a plot synopsis in their own language that couches the narrative in the popular propagandistic discourses concerning the function and aims of the Islamic Revolution. Meanings and emotions and tensions are piled atop one another in this moment, but what stands out is a vision of the cinema as a universal language for the hopes and dreams of people across the world and across ideological divides.

This is how Affleck views the cinema, too, and Argo is his perfectly-balanced testament to that belief. Much more than his geographically-specific Boston dramas (Gone Baby Gone and The Town) that preceded it, Argo grounds its ideas in larger terms. Simultaneously conscious of its historical fidelity, contemporary political applicability, and entertainment imperative, Argo succeeds at all three disciplines. It manages to be a tense espionage thriller, a resonant social-political document, and a sharp send-up of Hollywood artificiality, often melding the genres to the point of erasing the supposed boundaries between them.

Affleck himself plays the CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez, coming across as a sort of secular, ascetic intelligence saint. If he’s a less obtrusive screen presence here than in The Town, then Affleck still places himself firmly at the centre of the proceedings in a way that a more modest film artist would not have. It detracts little, and he mostly lets his co-stars grab the highlight moments, but the film is constructed around Mendez and his sense of duty to his country, to the diplomats cooped up in the house of the Canadian ambassador (played by the indispensible Victor Garber) that he must find a way to extricate from their situation, and to his family. A filmmaker with less inherent vanity than Affleck might have shown more restraint in directing the film from both in front of and behind the camera.

But it’s a minor criticism, and besides the taking of some cynical dramatic license during the screws-tightened climax, it’s the only one I can conceive of levelling at the film. Argo is crackerjack entertainment with a working, reasoning brain behind it. Even with the Hollywoodizing of the group’s escape attempt, the last half of the movie or so is majorly tense stuff, especially the tipping point, where Affleck and editor William Goldenberg masterfully intercut between the airport, the Iranian-occupied U.S. embassy where attempts to identify six missing Americans inch towards fruition, and a studio backlot in Hollywood. The political element is also treated with steely-eyed clarity. Reams of archival footage is used, scrupulous re-creations are employed (the end credits feature side-by-sides of the original images and the film’s re-created ones, a heavy-handed but effective way of establishing historical bona fides), and Chris Terrio’s tensile script never shies away from the powerful grievances of the Iranian revolutionaries against the deposed Shah’s brutal and repressive American-backed regime. Iranians are not the blindly fundamentalist monsters of current right-wing Islamophobic fever-dreams; they simply responded to terror with terror.

But Argo is hardly as humourless as it may sound. It also boasts a satiric core that is likewise its fundamental organizing principle. Mendez’s challenge is to build the Canadian film crew concept into a cover convincing enough to fool the Iranians and, perhaps more importantly, to persuade the State Department bureaucrats who must greenlight it (and who would prefer to drop off some bicycles and tell the trapped diplomats to ride for the border, hundreds of miles from Tehran, in the Persian winter).

To do so, he travels to sun-soaked Los Angeles, where haphazard B-movies are being shot by crusty industry vets and the iconic Hollywood sign deteriorates in the hills, several letters lying in ruins. Enlisting the help of Oscar-winning make-up artist (and sometimes CIA contractor) John Chambers (John Goodman) as well as the aforementioned crusty producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Mendez takes an oft-rejected sci-fi script and makes the whole ridiculous movie industry believe that a few unknown Canadians intend to make the next Star Wars in the deserts of Iran.

The Hollywood send-up portion of Argo may receive less critical attention than the electric gravitas of the sequences in Iran, even if it is often hilarious (Mendez and his co-conspirators sign off on their phone calls with “Argo fuck yourself!”; Chambers replies to an actor’s complaint that he can’t perform in the minotaur mask he has been given with the quip, “If he could act, he wouldn’t be playing the minotaur.”) But it does tip the audience off to Affleck’s overall project with Argo. In depicting a corporate movie business full of fakes, bullshitters, and cynics peddling crap films to a troubled America in the midst of a film characterized by intellectual integrity, aesthetic depth, and technical skill, Affleck is taking a stand for artistic craftsmanship over commercial production. Even for a critic harbouring fundamental doubts about the level of separation between these supposed binaries, this is an encouraging expression of intent.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. December 31, 2012 at 8:52 am
  2. February 10, 2013 at 9:48 am

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