Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Let me set up a story for you. A CIA operative who specializes in “exfiltration” arrives in Tehran–the capital of Iran–to rescue six Americans who have evaded a mass hostage situation at the US embassy. Hiding out in the home of the Canadian Ambassador, these six escapees grow more wearied with each passing day as they are haunted by the thought of impending capture and, most likely, execution. But the operative arrives with elaborate disguises, convincing identities, and fake Canadian passports. Now he just needs to lead the group out of Iran, past customs, and back to the United States, their homeland. Sounds like the stuff of a Hollywood thriller, right?
Well, it is–and in more ways than one. It’s Argo, a movie about a fake movie–both of the same name. And both, you might say, “directed” by Ben Affleck.
Tony Mendez (Affleck) has not just been given the task of rescuing the six escapees, because, well, it wouldn’t be that easy. The group of seven needs more than that–they need a coverup purpose for their being in Iran and for their leaving. So Mendez is given permission to head to Tehran under the guise of a big Hollywood movie producer, looking to scout potential locations for a science fiction movie called “Argo.” And so the escapees aren’t merely individually disguised; they together form a movie-making crew of director, photographer, co-producer, and the like. The hope is that the process of creating a fake movie will key their escape, providing the narrative stuff of a real Hollywood thriller.
It’s good to know going in that Argo is decidedly not about politics. At least not in the conventional sense. If you want a character-driven film that explores the political intricacies and moral complexity of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, then Argo is destined to disappoint, but not because it doesn’t achieve excellence in what it sets out to accomplish. It’s a film about a happening so extraordinary that you would think it was a made up movie premise. Argo proceeds by teasing out the meta possibilities of its being a thriller about a fake movie produced under thrilling circumstances. Of course, Affleck does his due diligence. He prefaces the film with some of the relevant political information–including America’s role in harboring Mohammed Mossadegh (the inciting circumstance). Affleck harbors no ill-intention of belittling the circumstances in a deceiving manner.
It’s clear at the outset, when Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman) enter the narrative, that Affleck has narrow purposes, but that should not be confused with the absence of depth. In the scenes between Mendez and the Hollywood stand-ins, Affleck shows he’s more concerned with the humorous, fictive imagination at work in constructing the heroic plot than with the unsavory international relations which made the rescue necessary in the first place. So for instance, within this purview, Affleck isn’t dehumanizing Iranians by resisting subtitles so much as he’s humanizing the tension of the situation itself by highlighting the sense in which “Argo’s” crew–the six American diplomats–would have felt alien and scared (we’re told that only one or two of them speak the language). Beneath the 70’s realism that Affleck’s film achieves are wise cracks about the inherent fakery of movies in general and Hollywood movies in particular–probably most embodied by the self-obvious tension a particular scene invokes when a hokey set fight scene is being filmed, threatening to derail a real life catharsis with an artificial conflict.
And I suppose that’s the fine line Affleck walks (one which has drawn its detractors): the possibility that taking such a narrow focus, with its sometimes-comedic tone and contrived tension, might trivialize both the conflict and this particular resolution. But, for me, Argo works delightfully because it’s not only self-aware of its aims, but those potentially controversial aims fit the premise in a way that is self-referentially meaningful. Affleck’s film isn’t about international politics in the governmental sense–that’s for another film. Rather, it is about the more general “politics” of exfiltration: We are all citizens in need of rescue, hoping to return home. This is an essentially human plight that we daily inhabit, and a resolution we daily long for (notably, this is true of an Iranian girl in the film, too). So while Affleck embellishes the narrative in intentionally not-so-subtle comedic ways and brings us to the edge of our seats with some fabricated tension, these can’t help but serve the heart of this film, which is stranger than fiction.