Ben Affleck’s new film, Argo, begins by recounting, in brief, Iran’s troubled history from the 1950s onwards – the election of the democratic Mohammad Mosaddegh; his dethronement; the autocratic reign of Reza Pahlavi, who unleashed an era of torture and fear; and, finally, the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, following the Revolution. This fact-filled prologue deposits us in the late 1970s, the period the events of this film are set in, and it makes us anticipate a densely plotted political thriller. Why else would we need to be fed this slice of Middle Eastern history, especially at this time of tension between America and the Muslim world? But, as it turns out, the thing to note about this prologue isn’t the what (its contents) but the how (the presentation), which unfolds as a series of vividly illustrated comic-book panels, with at least one partially exposed breast. We are advised, in other words, not to be intimidated. We’re signing up not for education but entertainment.
These panels also prepare us for the film’s central conceit (based on true-life events), which is built around storyboards. For Argo is about a CIA operative (Tony Mendez, played by Affleck) who slips into Iran pretending to be a film producer scouting for locations for his latest movie. That this production is a sci-fi extravaganza comes as no surprise, given that Star Wars has just colonised the galaxy. (Affleck closes the film with shots of merchandise from the movie.) And its name is… Argo. Put differently, Affleck has made a film that’s named after the film that his character in the film is supposed to be making. But, this tongue-in-cheek business apart, Argo isn’t some kind of meta mind-scrambler. It’s a comfortingly old-fashioned Hollywood yarn, plain and simple – part nail-biting adventure, part satirical comedy. The former comes from Mendez’s mission, to rescue six Americans stranded in Tehran after the US Embassy was stormed by an irate mob, made all the more irate after discovering, inside, a photograph of Khomeini transformed into a dartboard.
And the comedy comes from the tag team of John Goodman (playing the real-life makeup artist John Chambers, responsible for the simians in the Planet of the Apes series) and Alan Arkin (as producer Lester Siegel). They make a superlative odd couple, Goodman’s outsized bonhomie contrasting nicely with Arkin’s brittle hucksterism, revealed most hilariously at a public reading of the Argo script, where a journalist wants to know if the film’s title is a reference to the myth of Jason and the golden fleece. Mendez enlists these old-time Hollywood hands for his project, because he needs to make the world believe that he’s making a real movie, and this juicy premise allows Affleck to equate Hollywood’s preposterousness with Iran’s. If you didn’t know that these events really happened, you’d dismiss them as the feverish fomentations in a screenwriter’s head – the stirrings of a transplanted Western perhaps, given that John Wayne has just been laid to rest, and America could use a new cowboy. Mendez is certainly up to the task.
The political shadowing of the Iranian hostage crisis, in the end, is just background colour. Unlike Steven Spielberg’s Munich, Argo isn’t interested in the high costs paid by covert operatives in terms of their personal lives. The coda, for instance, carries one of the film’s falsest moments, involving a family reunion – though the cast is so good that we uncomplainingly buy these Hollywoodisms. (Bryan Cranston, especially, is brilliant. He gets the film’s funniest lines – “[Jimmy] Carter’s shitting enough bricks to build the pyramids” – but instead of popping them out as jokes, he layers them with weariness and exasperation.) When Mendez reaches Tehran and expresses his intentions to make a movie that’s set there, an official regards him with barely concealed contempt. “Ah, the exotic Orient,” he sneers. “Snake charmers. Flying carpets.” Substitute these with “Islamic fundamentalists” and “America haters,” and the accusation could be leveled at Argo. Driving past the streets of Tehran, Mendez spies a KFC outlet, and a little further, a man hung to die from a construction crane. His do-or-die rescue operation wouldn’t quite carry the same frisson if it were set in liberal London.
But Affleck, to his credit, doesn’t cheapen his drama the way Alan Parker did in Midnight Express, which was set in Turkey. The Iranians aren’t savages – they’re merely angry. When Mendez and his “crew” take a tour of a bazaar that has stood for 8000 years, one of them takes Polaroid pictures, and an incensed shop-owner demands that his photograph be handed over to him. We find out, eventually, that the Shah killed his son with an American gun. Affleck makes these details count. The screenplay tightens the screws ever so slowly, letting slip that the security at Tehran airport is doubled or that army suicide missions came with better odds. By the time we see the already shaky plan being messed up by the higher-ups, my heart was pounding. The truest test of a genre movie is that it transcends your intellect and toys with your feelings. Argo sails through with flying colours.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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