Argo is a tale about a fake film, and it is itself a fake film. Made with perfunctory professionalism by a stolid actor turned stolid director, Argo sets out to explore one of modern geopolitics’ pivotal moments through the lens of a true yet authentically absurd event, one that saw reality reshaped by the powerful effect of Hollywood’s distorting gravity. But far from evoking any depth of cultural contemplation or significant irony, Ben Affleck has turned a fascinatingly weird appendix to a greater, distinctly antiheroic tale into a monument to the hermetic values of Hollywood myth-making, shallow nostalgia shot through with appropriate levels of both patriotic affirmation and liberal piety, and simplistic suspense-mongering. The opening sequences are the best in the film, depicting the unnerving terror underneath an illusory normality: the bureaucratic labours of the staffers at the American embassy in Tehran, registering the rage and revolution outside as a causative for having to work longer and faster, suddenly faced with an invasion of their bland modern offices by yowling mobs, like the French Revolution restaged as the Martyring of Dilbert. The need to trash classified documents forestalls necessary escape, so most of the embassy staff are taken captive, but a venturesome quintet slips out onto a side street which is, by contrast, bewilderingly calm. After being turned away by several potential safe harbours, they eventually find refuge in the house of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).
The State Department takes charge of the situation as war by media erupts between the Carter administration and the professional ranters of the revolution, and methods to get the escapees out are bandied. Enter the CIA, whom, the opening voiceover has informed us, were responsible for the unseating of Persia’s democratic leader Mohammad Mossadegh, but hey, never mind, here they’re going to keep themselves strictly to heroically aiding US citizens. Tony Mendez (Affleck) is the anointed expert in extracting people from danger zones, but the problems in this situation seem too scary until, as he chats with his son over the phone to his son who’s watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1974) on TV, he has a brainwave. What if he pretends to be scouting locations for a Hollywood production, and passes the escapees off as members of a film crew? His plan is quickly assessed as the least-bad one available, and Mendez calls up Planet of the Apes’ make-up wiz, and occasional CIA helpmate, John Chambers (John Goodman). Mendez has Chambers dig up a producer who might be able to effectively create a fake production so that the cover story can stand up to scrutiny, and Chambers obtains the services of Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who uses bluster and clout to obtain a real screenplay for a cheesy Star Wars knock-off called Argo, and arranges phony Variety articles and casting calls for the production, as well as setting up a production office to which any enquires from the Iranian authorities will be routed. Armed with all the material he needs for the mission, Mendez then travels to Tehran to sell the would-be escapees on the plan.
Argo deals with still-relevant, potentially touchy and unpleasant realities of the world stage, but in invoking the peculiar relationship the US has with Iran, and the one the US and the world at large both have with Hollywood. It seems like a wealth of opportunity is presented by the subject matter for a director with a strong grasp on the peculiarities of those relationships, of the duplicity of image and reality, and of the innately surreal aspect of fantastic fiction coming to the rescue of people trapped in invidious reality. Affleck was not that director, nor Chris Terrio the right screenwriter. Terrio’s work relies on obvious stereotypes and well-studied rhythms of scripting. Chambers and especially Siegel emerge as flat clichés, spouting gruff insider speak, operator bullshit, and an apt number of cuss words. We get a scene of Siegel negotiating with foul-mouthed exuberance for the rights to the crucial Argo screenplay, a supposedly terrible but appropriate template for the fake production, with agent Max Klein (Richard Kind), before an awkward and entirely unconvincing scene in which Siegel and Mendez bond over their troubled family lives, a moment of character interaction and development so bland it could well have been clipped complete from any halfway decent screenwriting guide. That Arkin is the chief reason to watch this film, with his liquid-nitrogen delivery and atomic clock sense of timing, is a proposition not worth arguing with, but the number of films that waste him in variations on the same aging comedic coot are piling up. A joke that was reportedly shared amongst the rescuers and rescued in the true story, a pun on the title of the faux-movie, “Argo fuck yourself”, is presented here as a sharp non-witticism thrown by Siegel at a journalist, and then adopted as a sarcastic, and finally a smarmily emotive, battle cry.
Mendez speaks of his intent to exploit the fact that Hollywood is notoriously oblivious to anything but its own fantasias, counting on this to explain the bewildering indifference of his “crew” to the reality unfolding in Iran. But Argo is happy in sticking with the one basic gag: hey look, Hollywood types really helped out once in a real-world situation. See, they’re not all a bunch of useless overpaid fruits, are they? The film’s most amusing vignette comes when Siegel arranges a fake read-through test for potential actors, with no less a figure of late ‘70s pulp cinema than Adrienne Barbeau included amongst the unwitting, auditioning enablers of this burlesque, but Affleck fails to wring as much delight out of this as he might. The basic choice for Affleck here in approaching this story was to either make it farce or to play it straight, and personally I think it would have been far better, and ultimately deeper, played as farce; here the experience of the real people, whilst taken as nominally grave, is belittled just as much by making them an addendum to a by-the-numbers caper flick as it would be by making Shakespearean Pastoral mirth out of their lot. The fake film Argo itself seems strongly reminiscent of 1979’s immortal craptacular, Starcrash, whilst the plot to foist this phony production on the Iranians suggests some amazing real-world simulacrum of After The Fox (1966). Affleck wants to ape the best examples of ‘70s cinema, when even cheeseball sci-fi movies had a kind of tactile intensity to them. But rather than accentuating the tension between veracity and fakery by offering any sign of it in his filmmaking, Argo plays out as relentlessly competent and dourly “realistic,” except when making up stuff to make itself seem more important and exciting than it actually is. Affleck works to recreate the verisimilitude and workaday grit of Alan Pakula, Peter Yates, and Sidney Lumet, but he lacks some significant traits of that breed of filmmaker, most particularly their ethic of avoiding as many pleasant conventions as possible, whereas Affleck is beholden to them. He shows off his glib grasp of the period detail by having the besieged staffers celebrate their imminent departure by listening to music nobody in their right minds in such a situation would listen to, designed rather to show off the director’s taste in retro tracks.
Affleck’s former creative partner Matt Damon this year had planned to make his directing debut with a variation on that ever-popular avatar for limousine liberal male actors, the conflicted schill with a conscience faced with the malfeasance of his fill-in-the-blank Evil Corporation, in the dreary but occasionally less programmatic Promised Land, which Gus Van Sant finished up helming. Here Affleck casts himself as Mendez, an ethnic role that might have offered an interestingly different perspective on this kind of patriotic adventuring, but the hero is stripped of any specificity of motive or world-view. The erstwhile auteur tries to present Mendez as a figure of admirably low-key professionalism, beset by a patina of shell-shocked confusion over the loss of effectualness in his life and job, but his marital strain, and eventual reconciliation facilitated by success in his mission, sits inert and underdeveloped, a supernal gesture towards humanisation that seems, rather, to suggest that if American men had been consistently aggressive in standing up to the Middle East, then all of this feminist divorce shit would never have caught on. The characters in Argo seem to have been spat out of a computer databank of stock types. We’ve got the gruff boss with a heart of gold in the form of Mendez’s superior (Bryan Cranston). We’ve got the veteran film producer, in keeping with a popular image of Hollywood Jewish ballbusters unchanged in fifty years, spouting har-de-har dialogue right on cue about how certain movie-related organisations are far more difficult to deal with than religious fanatics with guns.
Meanwhile, the five escapees are so little characterised they’re practically interchangeable under their ‘70s hair-don’t wigs: there’s the nerdy one with glasses, the even nerdier one with glasses, his wife with big glasses, the other wife with the blonde hair, and the older one. The nerdy one is anxiously guilty for getting his wife into this situation and so plays the querulous punch-pisser for this particular party, but of course he comes around at the last minute to seemingly save the escape from disaster by talking around a particularly suspicious security officer. There could be a supply of self-aware humour in the way that Mendez casts each of these people according to their archetype in who they will be in the film crew – director, screenwriter, etc – and in the contrast of Hollywood’s scripted nonsense versus the equally scripted, carefully cast propaganda war of the Iranians, but Ruffio’s script tends to state such aspects, rather than animate them, and Affleck’s relentlessly unimaginative direction means these possibilities remain entirely unrealised. Likewise, there’s a suggestion that the Iranians might see a parable for their own fight for nationalistic self-determination in the adventures of the nobly square-jawed hero of the fake film, just as the Americans see their own impossible lot in it, with a concomitant wryness about the vague but powerful way such symbolic tales can be interpreted according to the predisposition of the viewer. But Affleck's filmmaking has no wit to build upon these possibilities, and the Iranian setting never feels very convincing. Affleck doesn’t want to investigate the relationship between life and pulp fantasy, but rather transmute life into pulp fantasy, for the sake of box office and comfortably award-ready aesthetic, as he draws out his conclusion with increasingly contrived devices, like a last-minute cancellation of the mission which Affleck makes a last-minute decision to ignore, and Chambers and Siegel have to make a last-minute intervention to save the cover story. Argo powers to a conclusion with a chase scene so stupid, contrived, and incompetently handled that I cannot believe it’s received such a general pass mark from commentators: Iranian police pursue the airbus the Americans board down the runway in a scene of pseudo-action that wouldn’t pass muster in an average James Bond film, whilst others beat on the door of the control tower, apparently because no-one thought to telephone the controllers, and scant seconds later the plane is out of Iranian air space. Argo wants to please its audience with a happy ending and a sense of old wrongs at least partly righted, but it proves instead cavernously empty. What we’re left with is yet another film that determinedly exploits the paranoia of white westerners about being glared at by vaguely threatening foreigners.