Monday, October 22, 2012

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)

As a claustrophobic, I got tremendous discomfort from Argo's crushed shots against throngs of hostile crowds packed so tightly that navigation looks impossible even for those not under the hostile suspicions of an entire nation. Spatial relationships mean nothing in these moments, as there is no real path to escape for the Americans stranded in Iran after the fall of the shah and the installation of Ayatollah Khomeini. After an animated prologue, Argo begins with a mob beating at the gates of the US embassy in Tehran until they storm the compound, and the fear of reprisal against Americans for their country's role in propping up the former regime pervades the film.

Those animated credits, however, hint at the other major element of Argo's construction. When the Iranians take the embassy's workers hostage, six Americans escape and hide out in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Everyone knows they cannot stay there forever, but if Iranians find these Americans on the street, they will be executed as spies as fast as a kangaroo court will allow. The United States government cannot risk open involvement without provoking a war, so CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) concocts an extraction plan so absurd that, as they say, it just might work. Mendez will travel to Iran as a Canadian filmmaker and pull the staffers out under the ruse of being his crew on a location shoot. As Lester Spiegel, the fading film legend who helps prop up this farce says, he went on suicide missions in the Army less dangerous than this idea.

That this producer is played by Alan Arkin, who played Yossarian (he of the endless suicide missions) in the film version of Catch-22, gives some indication of Argo's treatment of its Hollywood connection. That is one of the subtler jokes; elsewhere, goofs at Tinseltown's expense pepper the screenplay. When Mendez heads to Los Angeles to set up a fake production company to make the cover seem legit, he meets with Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who responds to the agent's request to come to Hollywood and behave like a big shot without actually doing anything with, "You'll fit right in." The script Mendez, Spiegel and Chambers settle on is itself such a laughable Star Wars ripoff that this harbinger of New Hollywood's creative death says as much about Argo's 1980 setting as the hostage crisis. Initially amusing, these in-jokes start to drag after a while, especially in a movie that takes great pains to make its star-studded cast appear that much more eye-popping. Every name actor in this movie is introduced with a half-second pause as if the movie were a classic sitcom and space were being set aside for studio applause to greet each star's entrance.

When Affleck returns to Iran and gets down to the mission, though, Argo continues Affleck's reinvention from a talented but overexposed and frequently miscast actor into a sturdy, dependable director capable of wringing great suspense from his genre fare. He uses more handheld camerawork and confusing editing in this movie than in the more formal (or at least just basic) Gone Baby Gone and The Town, but in this case it works. Affleck ably communicates the sudden fear of the staffers, most of whom do not speak the language of the country they are in. None of them has time to consider the irony of electing to build diplomatic relations with a country so beyond their ken that they cannot even speak to its inhabitants, but an inkling of "Should've learned Farsi when I had the chance" crosses the face of several when Mendez makes them walk through a bazar "scouting" as part of their story. The climax, which brings all the weaknesses in Mendez's already thin cover out into the open, is one of the best sequences of the year, a tightly assembled gem made all the more tense by Affleck slyly letting the audience just start to breathe a sigh of relief as the characters make it past one airport checkpoint before pushing the Americans into yet another examination. Much as Argo lets the slack out of its flow in Los Angeles, this sequence ties the whole film together with crowd-pleasing aplomb.

A crowd-pleaser is, at heart, all Argo really is, though it occasionally hints at something more. In one brief span, Argo could even be said to critique a mass-audience reaction, juxtaposing his many images of Muslim rage (as Newsweek calls it) with smaller-scale but no-less-mindless reprisals in America. A montage of what appears to be actual news footage from the time shows Americans holding patriotic displays, burning the Iranian flag as we earlier saw an Iranian do to Old Glory, even beating an Iranian-American who helplessly professes his non-affiliation with his ancestor's homeland before punches and kicks rain down on him. It's a well-delivered visual lesson, though perhaps not enough to offset how much Affleck mines the walls of screaming Iranians for visceral domestic terror. But I cannot portray the ability to hook a crowd—especially for a film that does not come with a built-in fanbase—as a lesser skill. Argo has been inaccurately described as a throwback to 1970s thrillers, but it is an understandable mistake given how alien such an ability feels to contemporary mainstream filmmaking.


  1. Excellent review! I just saw this last night so it's still settling in my head. I'm claustrophobic as well, and being stuck in a large crowd is my worst nightmare, so I was also very affected by the opening scene, which I thought was done very well in the sense of showing the hopelessness and desperation of the situation. I agree that the film is in its essence a mainstream crowd-pleaser, and a generally well-done one at that!