On a mission to retrieve six Americans in hiding from Iran, Ben Affleck’s Argo is a taut thriller and a hilarious Hollywood caper. Just don’t talk politics.
Prince Of Persia by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There’s an ideological divide to Ben Affleck’s Argo. You may read its potted history prologue of star-spangled banner burning Iranian rebels as a shocking challenge to anti-Americanism or alternatively as rabble-rousing side-taking. Nevertheless it’s an edifying introduction to the Iranian Revolution, its cartoon history charting the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and the fall of the Shah Reza Pahlavi with concise economy. And yet thirty years separates us from those events of 1979, enough time for critical distance and reflection, and for the United States to declassify its most top secret and most embarrassing files. Affleck’s easy mark however, and Argo‘s neat conflation of the Iranian Revolution with contemporary ructions, while not exactly accurate, twists Argo into a very American tale of nostalgic nose-thumbing.
Argo begins on 4th November 1979, with the thunderous clamour of the baying crowd outside Tehran’s US Embassy, revolutionaries angry for American blood as they demand the extradition of the fallen Shah from the States to face trial in Iran. And Affleck’s mastery over these scenes is stunning, visually recreating Seventies footage with all the lip-biting tension of a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s confusing and cacophonous, like all good sieges should be, as irate locals hammer at the gates and moustachioed Americans hurry to incinerate, shred and destroy incriminating evidence and archaically gargantuan hard drives. It may recall the Stasi, but its scorched earth policy is basic self-protection, hiding the identities of its enemy-of-the-state visa applicants and staff. Not that it helps the 52 Americans captured hostage, but for the six diplomats working in the street-side consulate who escape via the backdoor onto the streets of Tehran, it’s a stay of execution which turns out to be a ticking time bomb as Iranian child workers piece together the shredded evidence of their ID photographs.
69 days later, the six escapees are still hiding out in the home of the Canadian Ambassador, the CIA slowly pulling together a plan to bring them home. The modus operandi is devised by Tony Mendez, played by Affleck himself with a presumably more cinegenic and more Seventies beard than Mendez’ original moustache. Affleck mumbles his way through Argo as the Latino CIA agent, with all the uncharismatic and ungainly presence of a wooden toy. Yet as a director, he’s much better. Even after the incredible tension of the opening riot, Affleck’s treatment of the Hollywood movie business is razor-sharp, aided and abetted by a sizzling script and whip-crack performances from Alan Arkin and John Goodman. There are enough one-liners to make Mae West blush and a philosophical spin too, as movies here are recreated as politics, the fakery and gloss imbued with a deeper purpose as Academy Award winner and Planet Of The Apes mask-maker John Chambers joins forces with Lester Siegel to exfiltrate the trapped clandestine Americans.
“You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.” It’s a daring line for any director to include in a film, and with the high-brow period politics, the Burbank Studios’ comedy and the hostage-busting tension, Argo is certainly more than vainglorious monkey business. There is an over-reliance on cross-cut editing designed to create an illusion of down-to-the-wire, net-tightening tension, which in the end becomes so dislocated and familiar that its sheer improbability gives way to a rather uninvolving optimism. But there’s also trapeze-taut tension as the six refugees, posing as a production crew, walk through an angry crowd in the Grand Bazaar on a location scout. Iran is demonised into a viper’s nest of beards and burkas, and Affleck’s vision is manipulative in its one-time visit to the American hostages in captivity lined up and terrorised in front of a (blank-)firing squad. But he also manages to rake up some cine-literate kudos with the casting of Rafi Pitts (director of It’s Winter and The Hunter) as the Iranian consulate approving Mendez’s visa. It’s unfortunate then that Argo misses the opportunity to return the favour, and with Argo filmed entirely in Turkey, Affleck is unable to bring the same political edge to his own movie.
Like the unreflected title of its film-within-a-film, Argo is all at sea with its clumsy politics. But there’s a wry charm to its fleecing of the American dream, the six hostages only making it onto the airplane after the Iranian border officials have been mesmerised with storyboards and Hollywood magic. It’s perhaps best in its devil-may-care “Argo f*** yourself!” attitude towards the movie business and the CIA, who call the mission off to save their reputation, unwilling to be humiliated by a B-movie spy flop. And turning a blind eye to the cross-ethnic self-casting of Ben Affleck, Argo, with its corporate insurrections as CIA agents go against orders from above to confirm the hostages’ tickets out of Iran, is a fitting and tense tribute to the dozen or so people who made the escape happen. It’s almost indifferent to the fate of the region, and it’s with chilling foresight that the Canadian Ambassador’s domestic Saha crosses into a still peaceful Iraq, while all the others head back to the safe bosom of North America. Argo has its head firmly rooted in the Persian sands, but as a declassified act emerging from the underground, it’s a tense and thrilling tale of the Hollywood sting.
Argo is released on 7th November 2012 in the UK