Argo

A great American what?

The unfortunate part of Argo is its timing.  The suspicion and mistreatment with which the film’s American characters are met in Iranian airports is the exact treatment Middle-Eastern folks receive in American airports now.  Additionally, the Iranians are portrayed as bloodthirsty animals just waiting to unleash gunfire on anyone revealed to be American “spies.”  Their well-documented fascination with American movies and culture is touched upon; however, these scenes are brief and stylistically backwards, making a group of Iranian soldiers seem like, for lack of a better term, dummies.  There’s also an added dramatization in which armed revolutionaries chase an escaping airplane down a runway, which sounds worse than it is.

As a film, Argo is drama 101.  Its structure is simple and effective, and its narrative is complete.  There is a stigma revolving around Ben Affleck, as though he’s somehow the successful hack of the current Hollywood generation; sure, his acting is sometimes pretty flat, but he’s a good filmmaker.  He knows the ropes of a realistic drama.  Argo is a movie that is allowed to be two hours – it vibrates with a sort of quiet that renders its scenes tense and thrilling without the contrived insertion of fight scenes and villains.

The narrative, based on a true story, follows Tony Mendez (Affleck) as he is pressured by the CIA to come up with a solution to a problem: Islamic “extremists” have taken over the U.S. embassy in retaliation for the country’s support of the recently deposed Shah Pahlavi.  Six of the embassy staff escape capture, however, and end up virtual hostages of Iran as they are housed in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) with little hope of escape.  Mendez and his supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) will team with renowned Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and fictional movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), and together they will create extensive marketing for a fake Star Wars knockoff.  The six hostages will take on the identities of the movie crew after Mendez makes contact with them in Tehran, and with the CIA’s help, will board a commercial aircraft out of Iranian airspace.

As this is a film, the plan must not be an instant success, but Affleck’s dramatic license is not as egregious as it may have been in other hands. Immediate problems include the fact that the extremists are re-piecing the shredded documents from the abandoned embassy, which means they’ll soon discover the identities of the six missing staff and be able to recognize them on sight.  Additionally, Taylor’s housekeeper, Sahar (Sheila Vand), who does not speak English, may be onto the identities of Taylor’s six “house guests,” and Taylor and Mendez fear who she might tell.

The film’s action, though evenly paced and quiet, is climactic, particularly when the plan is put into motion and the six hostages plus Mendez are out in the open, attempting to make their way through the airport.  A slew of real footage from the crisis is used, particularly in the beginning, almost in an attempt to say, “Look how close to real life we made this movie look!” but which doesn’t distract from the story for long.  In the end, we see some photos of the real people next to the actors who played them, voiced over by a speech from the real-life Jimmy Carter (whom Affleck wisely decided not to have appear as a character in the film), all except Mendez, since Affleck seems to have been rightfully embarrassed/ashamed about casting himself, rather than a Latino actor, in the role of the hero.

In fact, Mendez is really the only character we don’t get to know very well.  Carter refers to him as a “great American” for what he sacrifices to get his people out of Iran.  Why does he go so far to do this?  The mission is classified, so he’s not doing it to impress his estranged fiance’ (Taylor Schilling) and son.  He’s (thankfully) not a staunch patriot, as we see him sleeping through the morning news reports and wrestling with his supervisors (mainly Cranston’s character) about which technique they should use to stage the escape.  As a bad acting instructor would ask, what’s his motivation?  Affleck’s Mendez reaches Boring Hero status by the time the mission begins.  As author Clint McCown would tell you, “it happened in real life” is no excuse in fiction.

Goodman and Arkin play the most enjoyable characters and provide some truly funny moments, including industry-savvy-yet-accessible Hollywood banter, in a film so awash in its own seriousness.  Goodman’s character at one point quotes Karl Marx’s line about tragic history repeating itself as farce, and cites this quote as belonging to “Marx,” after which Arkin replies, “Groucho said that?”

The would-be breakthrough character in the film is Sahar, who despite the paranoia of Mendez and Taylor, actually protects the hostages and the mission at the risk of being killed by interrogators who fanatically support the Ayatollah.  Of course, since this is a Hollywood movie, the misunderstood foreigner with a heart of gold must, as a rule, be played by a beautiful girl in her early twenties, but the inclusion of a sympathetic Iranian character (with her own ambitions, despite how little they may be touched upon) is a positive gesture.

Best Picture buzz already surrounds Argo.  It won the Toronto Film Festival, which has predicted BP at the Oscars for the past five years.  Due to its (in)convenient timing, the film may slide into home, beating out Lincoln and Les Miserables, the other shoo-in nominees, and it may deserve it (over the other nominees, that is – not over every film that came out this year).  Argo may be a bullet-for-bullet example of what a screenplay is supposed to look like, but there’s also a heart there.  I’d have appreciated it if the heart wasn’t so glowingly red-white-and-blue, but it’s there all the same.

Argo (2012); written by Chris Terrio; directed by Ben Affleck; starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin.

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