Argo follows earnest CIA office Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) as he attempts to rescue six people who have evaded the Iran Hotsage Crisis which saw 52 Americans held at the US embassy for 444 days. But the film is torn between the flamboyant American processes used to extract the escaped six in 1979 and their frightening ordeal, so much so that it becomes inflated Oscar fodder that moronically deflects from some of its more interesting subtleties. The epilogue claims director Ben Affleck is keen for his film to highlight co-operation between the US and Canada during this rescue mission, but the overall tone of this film is incredibly gung-ho, only tempered by the modesty of its real-life heroes.
He sets this save-the-day tone by opening Argo with graphic novel-style scenes and there is something disgusting about the way he introduces Iran like it’s Gotham City, with rich princesses who bathe in milk, selfish kings and paupers at the gate. But there is also something fantastically artistic and poignant about his choice of narration style in this segment. It is reductive and simplistic but uses a version of history that wasn’t openly admitted by The States until 2000. Specifically America’s role in the ousting of the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh and the establishment of the monarch Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as political leader in 1953.
But this initial openness makes it more frustrating when the film really begins and Argo focuses on the six “houseguests” living with the Canadian ambassador because it does a terrible job of conveying their very real plight in any original way.
Chris Terrio’s screenplay gives us angry Iranians shouting at them in the market but do we get any subtitles in this scene? Nope. Generally he gives us an idea of how the Americans must have felt, confused and confronted by aggression in an enemy land. But the subtle performances of the brilliant cast, which includes the reliably excellent Victor Garber, Clea DuVall and Tate Donovan among others, do more than enough to convey this without having the mindless angry Arab image rearing its head once more. Subtitles in this scene would have done what that comic strip beginning did quite artfully: mix our contemporary knowledge of Iranians as a people with a voice with the more common images that reflect the events of 1979. This mix, which hits on something that satisfies a contemporary, thinking audience, is severely and symptomatically lacking throughout.
That said, Argo does use its position much better when it looks at the Hollywood men, John Chambers and Lester Siegel, the make-up artist and producer who set up a fake film production company to provide cover identities for the six houseguests. Playing these wise, disillusioned, hilariously frank men to perfection are John Goodman and Alan Arkin who take us through some wonderfully bizarre images of Hollywood manipulation that combine acute political awareness with the wool being pulled over our eyes. It’s disappointing then, that Affleck has made these scenes seem so out of place in his mediocre film.
His epilogue at the end talks about the incident’s happy outcome as an example of nations working together in a crisis. On this I have two questions 1) Where the shit is his depiction of the no doubt complex Canadian part in all this? And 2) Erm, big picture please?