Argo (London Film Festival review)
I’m “biast” (pro): the trailer alone gave me chills; deals with some of my pet topics, including Hollywood insiderness and political criticism; I’ve been astonished by Ben Affleck’s work as a director and hoped for another great film from him
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I read the source material after I saw the film
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I can’t remember this ever happening to me before: I was literally in tears for parts of Argo, a purely physical reaction, not an emotional one, to deal with the tension. The only other option would have been to moan out loud, the film is almost that unbearably nerve-wracking. And this is even though I was aware of the general outcome, if not all the details, of the story I was watching. That isn’t only some serious movie magic, it’s a downright master class in suspense filmmaking from director Ben Affleck (The Town, Gone Baby Gone). Everybody else: This is how it’s done.
But… Oh man, I’m laughing to myself again merely recalling how fantastic Argo is just on the plane of visceral cinematic experience. Because when I wasn’t doubled over in anxious agony, I was laughing out loud — another thing I rarely do at the movies; chuckles or snorts, sure, but not guffaws — at the hilarious Hollywood satire propping up the political action thriller stuff. As you’ve likely heard, Argo is the mostly true story of how a CIA specialist concocts a crazy plan to help six Americans escape from Tehran in the midst of the anti-American fervor of the U.S. embassy hostage crisis that began in 1979 and stretched on for more than a year… a crazy plan that involves having them pose as a Canadian film crew on the ground in Iran to do location scouting for a science fiction film called Argo and flying out under those assumed identities. But it has to be a real fake movie if it’s going to have any chance of working, so “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) heads to Hollywood to lay the groundwork. Here — with producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin: City Island, Marley & Me) and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman: ParaNorman, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), the latter of whom Mendez had worked with before — he sets up a production company, options an actual script that’s been knocking around L.A. looking for a buyer, holds a press event to announce the film: the whole shebang.
In between jokes about the WGA being as ruthless as Islamic revolutionaries and Hollywood as just like covert intelligence — secretive and full of people pretending to be something they’re not — is brutally stinging criticism of American foreign policy, media, and public life. On a TV in the background of one scene we hear then President Carter saying, “The actions of Iran have shocked the civilized world,” a clear slash at the hypocrisy of such a statement. For the film had opened by calmly explaining the background of the embassy storming and hostage taking by Islamic revolutionaries: it’s the backlash from the U.S.- and U.K.-engineered coup in 1953 that installed the cruel puppet Shah and took back Iran’s oil, which the prior democratically elected Iranian leader had selfishly nationalized — ie, taken it away from Western corporations — on behalf of the Iranian people. Where was the international shock when that happened? Did any Americans who festooned their homes and yards with yellow ribbons — Argo makes sure we are reminded how ubiquitous they were in the U.S. in 1979 and 1980 — in support of the hostages have the slightest inkling that the rage of the Iranians toward America wasn’t unjustified?
This is a rageful movie in some ways, but none of its ire detracts from the inexorable push of the supremely exciting narrative: it’s but one more layer of brilliance woven through it by screenwriter Chris Terrio (Heights). (Argo is based on the 2007 Wired article “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran” by Joshuah Bearman; it’s probably best not to read it until you’ve seen the movie.) And the rage is more directed at bullshit in general. The Iranians don’t escape digs at their hypocrisy: Mendez believes his movie ruse will work because so many of the revolutionaries, such as the guards they will encounter at the airport, were educated in the West and can be expected to be as taken with Hollywood as the rest of the world is. One character notes that the angry mobs in the streets of Tehran are playing for the news cameras, putting on a show for the planet as much as they are expressing genuine emotion. And there’s a telling shot of women draped in black robes enjoying fried chicken at a packed Tehran KFC… though the gift of greasy fast food hardly seems like a fair trade for an entire country’s natural resources.
America and Americans take the brunt of the film’s reproach — if Mendez’s Argo plan is, as one of the would-be escapees cries, “theater of the absurd,” so is all of it: the President’s condemnation, the yellow ribbons, the ease with which the CIA can roam abroad doing whatever the hell it pleases. The U.S. is very very good at pretending, whether it’s the fakery of Hollywood — hey, the replica late 70s-early 80s hair and makeup is amazing here; the film has a gorgeous period look, and is in no way a parody of a style that now looks dated to us — or the nonsense of the official fantasy that as a nation we can do no wrong, only be wronged against.
All that said, this is a movie about individuals, not nations. That line of Carter’s? We don’t hear so much as overhear it. The criticism isn’t in our faces even as it is piled on, and there’s a particular cleverness to that: it removes any question that the film is propagandizing. The six Americans in hiding at the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber: Kung Fu Panda 2, Milk) may have been embassy workers — they escaped becoming hostages by literally sneaking out a back door — but they don’t deserve to be tried and executed as spies, as would happen were they caught, no matter how justifiably angry the Iranian revolutionaries are.
There’s not a thing wrong here. Argo is simply a fantastic movie: very funny, hugely suspenseful, enormously intelligent, beautifully presented in every possible way. It even features one of the best catchphrases in ages: “Argo fuck yourself!” (You won’t be able to not repeat it endlessly.) It’s a shame they won’t be able to say it at the Oscars.
viewed during the 56th BFI London Film Festival