“Argo fuck yourself”
That Argo was made at all is perhaps something of a minor miracle. Hollywood studio execs are not notably keen on movies that they cannot easily pigeon-hole, let alone those that send up Hollywood studio execs. Yes, there have been a few of those but it took Robert Altman, no less, to make The Player. But make it Ben Affleck certainly did, satirical jibes and all, for which we should be very grateful.
However, there are other factors to be considered here: Affleck is very warm property (ditto his co-executive producer, a certain George Clooney!), both as an actor and now as a director, this being his third such movie; there is at the heart of Argo a compelling tale to be told, declassified in 1999 or thereabouts; and because they do enjoy the opportunity to include some good old-fashioned American flag-waving, which always sells to the domestic audience, especially those that remember the real-life events portrayed here. And there’s more too… what can be better than sending up the 70s? All those ridiculous haircuts, stupidly huge spectacles and absurd facial hair, not to mention bad decor and dire TV programmes?! Bingo, a slice of nostalgia even the kids will laugh at!!
But finally, don’t say Americans don’t appreciate irony. These events are portrayed against the backdrop of the current situation in Iran, the development of its nuclear capability, the risk of war and invasion, a leader as potentially unstable as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the problems of effecting diplomacy with people you can’t trust, and what you have is a succinct nod to the complications of decision making within the renewed Obama administration.
So what is this Argo? An audacious movie about an audacious movie? No, scrub that. This is a movie “based on” real events (ie. there is much that is not factually accurate), the essence of which is so unlikely you’d think it had stretched the limits of credulity beyond snapping point. Who needs fiction when you have real life, though preferably portrayals should stick to facts and not fictionalise more than is absolutely necessary (a few Canadian friends are less than thrilled by how their country’s leading role is diminished here, though it is hardly new for Hollywood to rewrite history in favour of the American role.)
It starts with a history lecture in cartoon format, a stunt normally reserved for really awful movies that can’t be bothered to tell a story with effective narrative but justified here both for context and the fact that there was no casual way to introduce this lecture into the dialogue.
We then switch to the invasion of a somewhat under-defended and insecure American embassy in Teheran, and especially its nervous inhabitants, which seems in the light of the events mentioned previously naive but plausible. Cut to the chase and 68 inhabitants are held hostage (eventually for 444 days before their release), though six diplomatic staff escape to the Canadian embassy.
This is a tough and sensitive moment for the CIA. It’s only a matter of time before the Iranian rebels, demanding the return of the Shah to face Sharia justice, spot that the six escaped, and the impact for the reputation of the USA in the world and to its own citizens if these diplomats are executed in public. What can they do? In the absence of any sensible or workable ideas, operative agent Tony Mendez comes up with a suggestion: mock up a Star Wars rip-off movie, pretend locations will be within Iran, create fake Canadian IDs for the diplomats, convince the authorities they are part of the crew, smuggle them out aboard a scheduled flight. Simple, peeps!
Except of course it’s all very difficult to pull off, not least with the senior CIA and White House hawks calling for an invasion by Navy Seals and Marine Commandos, and boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) is having a tough time keeping them at bay. Dealing with the other side is bad enough, but your own side is just impossible! Yet somehow Mendez pulls it off, with the help of cynical Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), prosthetic make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), a convincingly awful script entitled Argo and a convincing new script spoken by the characters with some excellent one-liners for these old pros to demonstrate their timing.
The Mendez plot sounds crazy but as the “best bad idea” to hand, even Secretary of State Cyrus Vance lends his authority. Little by little this plan inches forwards. Mendez, under his cover name Kevin Harkins, gets to the Canadian embassy and bullies the sceptical diplomats into their roles, telling them to trust him since it’s now Hobson’s choice (or words to that effect.)
The meat of the movie is the gripping climax of the escape bid, as tension ratchets up to the moment when they have to get through three security checkpoints at the airport while the embassy guards piece together shredded documents, then put two and two together to realise that the “houseguests” resident at the Canadian ambassador’s home are in fact the missing American embassy staff.
This works brilliantly, and it works because the characters are utterly convincing and Affleck the director has nailed the detail, and the juxtaposition between the paranoia of one side against the fear and trepidation of the other. It builds to a thrilling climax that may well have been more mundane in reality, yet the escape truly did happen and the participants in the scam really got home safely.
Quite sure if we scour the records closely there must be many more such instances, though I’m equally sure US government departments might be less keen to see their cock-ups depicted on film too frequently. For Argo, this is the best dramatisation of a real-life incident since Costner‘s 13 Days, which is praise indeed. Go see – it’s an excellent movie and a credit to Affleck for having the guts to tell a compelling narrative straight, without fear or favour. And more to the point, here is a rare beast indeed, an American movie not afraid to take the piss out of American movies, and indeed portray Americans as somewhat less than invincible.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, “Argo fuck yourself” is a toast dreamed up by the would-be movie production team!!