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Argo


Company man:  Ben Affleck as agent Tony Mendez in Argo.  
What strange suburb of Boston is this?  Well, we're no longer in Dorchester, Southie or Charlestown for the latest film from Ben Affleck.  Instead, it's the turbulent streets of...Southern California.  Actually, it's sites in the San Fernando Valley, the Los Angeles neighborhood of Hancock Park and a disused airport terminal in Ontario, California which are made to resemble the teeming streets of Tehran at the start of what Americans know as The Iran Hostage Crisis.

Argo, Mr. Affleck's third film as a director concerns itself with a generally forgotten episode of that 444-day crisis called "The Canadian Caper."  Six Americans managed to escape the frightening storming and takeover of the U.S. Embassy by Islamist students and militants and find shelter in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, among other hiding places.  C.I.A. agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), an expert in "exfiltrating" people from dangerous locations, concocted a cover story in which he and the the six hunted Americans would pose as a Canadian film crew scouting exotic locations for their science fiction film, Argo.  Hopefully, as a group of unoffending Canadians, they would be able to escape the country before being found it.  The stakes could hardly have been higher.

There were apparently only two locations used in Argo which relate to the actual caper of rescuing the six Americans.  One is the Smokehouse restaurant in Burbank, the other is the real C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virgina.  After you've seen Argo, the C.IA.'s cooperation with the film is understandable.  The agency should be mighty pleased with the results.

The Iranian Revolution (or Islamic Revolution) was in full swing by the time the U.S. Embassy was finally invaded on November 4, 1979.   Argo begins on that fateful day with an overhead shot of the surging street in front of the embassy building.  Whether because of the stand-in location or perhaps the removed perspective, the scene initially has the feel of a spirited Islamic pep rally, despite all the angry placards, fist waving and synchronized chanting of "Allahu akbar!  Marg bar Amrika! (God is Great.  Death to America).  Some measure of verisimilitude is provided by the 800 or so Persian extras from the Los Angeles area who were utilized in Argo.  But quickly enough, as it must have seemed to those in the embassy that day, a dire momentum develops.  Affleck's film begins to build a tension consistent with the events as embassy employees hurriedly try to destroy documents and plot their escape while the compound and then building are breached by angry and (in some cases) armed Islamists.



When Mendez is first seen in Argo, he's awakened, head resting on a bed adjacent to a can of Miller High Life.  Interpret this and Mendez's marriage in separation as you will:  it's about as much as Chris Terrio's script is going to give you in terms of clues to character.  A man overworked by a stressful job?  Which has caused strain in his marriage?  Bit of a drinking problem?  Indifferent housekeeper?  Hard to say.  

 Mendez is roused by call from his boss at the C.I.A., Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston).  If you look up the actual Tony Mendez, you see that facial hair was and is part of his look.  Perhaps some of this related to the cloak and dagger of his work with the C.I.A.  None-the-less, Affleck's growing of period (and perhaps the darker, vaguely ethnic-looking) facial hair, along with his athlete's physique, makes him look more like an actor from, shall we say, a less mainstream film of the era.  He looks like a guy more likely to show up at the home of the Canadian ambassador to, perhaps, deliver a pizza or fix the copier (if you know what I'm saying, and I think you do) than exfiltrate people from a political maelstrom.  But Affleck is our guy, hustling into headquarters, so O'Donnell can explain that those bozos at the State Department - who clearly lack the experience of toppling governments and then  cleaning up the mess - have their own plan to liberate the six hiding Americans.   This involves getting bicycles to those hiding at the residence of the Canadian Ambassador so they can pedal their way to freedom, all the way to Turkey.  Mendez, understandably, can't hold his tongue when he hears the plans for Operation Velocipede.  Only later, when he's talking to his son on the phone while they both watch Battle for the Planet of the Apes on their separate televisions, does the idea of a fake science fiction film location scouting in Iran come to him.  

Mendez contacts his friend in the film industry, award-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman).  The real Chambers actually won an Academy Award for his work on the Planet of the Apes films and helped the C.I.A. with numerous "transformations."  In Los Angeles, Chambers and Mendez go through the snapshots so they can assign movie roles to the six Americans.  Chambers looks at the picture of Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) and says, "Here's your director."  "Can you teach somebody to be a director, in a day?," Mendez asks.  "You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day," Chambers assures him.

What the operation really needs according to the make-up artists is a producer.  This is where the composite character of Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) comes into the picture.  Literally.  Well, sort of.  Somehow the character of  Siegel seems like a grand old movie, movie producer, world-weary, shooting from the aged hip and tolerating no bullshit.  But if nothing else, screen writer Chris Terrio has thrown Siegel some zingers and Mr. Arkin's knocks them out of the park, his comedic timing as sharp as ever.  Typical of  a Siegelian outburst:  "You want to set up a movie, in a week. You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everybody lies for a living. Then you're going to sneak 007, over here, into a country that wants CIA blood on their breakfast cereal. And you're going to walk the Brady Bunch out of the most-watched city in the world."  Maybe we should have sent Siegel into Tehran to clean house.  

Hooray for Hollywood:  John Goodman and Alan Arkin
playingat making movies in Argo.
Goodman and Arkin, two supple old pros, do a fine job of exfiltrating us from the building tension of Argo, providing much of the film's warmth and wit.  Mr. Affleck has generally surrounded himself with good people for his three features as a director.  Argo has a big and varied cast of hundreds, if not thousands, from a kind of cameo by late-70's sex symbol Adrienne Barbeau to the always welcome presence of Philip Baker Hall.  Barbeau is Nina, cast as Serksi the Gallactic Witch in the science fiction film never to be made.  That's quite a credit, but surpassed, at least for me, by Hall's.  If you look in IMDB, he's simply uncredited.  But in the Wikipedia entry for Argo, he's listed "as maybe Vice President Mondale."  Sounds like the existential state of poor old Fritz after the 1984 presidential election, the malaise of  gathering but thirteen electoral votes.      

Argo is for most of its 120 minutes a very competent suspense film.  This despite a decided lack of character development in the script of Chris Terrio.  This is true not only of Mendez, but the the six hiding Americans.  A good short story or a film thirty minutes shorter could well tell us more about these people than is revealed through all of Argo.  All we get is the scared one, the married couple, etc.  But so well does Affleck manage his story through much of the film that this does not diminish the impact in any significant way.  This, clearly, is a film driven by plot, not character.  As Mendez arrives in Tehran and tries to gain the confidence of the group, "sweatshop kids" are piecing together pictures of the embassy staff that had been shredded.  When pictures of Americans unaccounted for can be assembled, the jig will most definitely be up.  The idea of a picture being reassembled, a face taking shape one sliver of a photo at a time, is quite reminiscent the similar plot device used in  No Way Out, as another reviewer has pointed out.  But an effective device it is.  




Through the sometimes harrowing interior scenes of Gone Baby Gone to the bank jobs in The Town to many of the fairly complex scenes in Argo, Ben Affleck has proven himself a director who can bring a clarity of story through what are potentially chaotic or even incoherent circumstances.  Although in various of the tense Argo scenes, as the camera is moving, moving, ever moving, it's like being engaged in conversation with someone whose non-stop chatter would seem to betray a fear of silence and what it might reveal.  

Argo is based on a 2007 Wired article, "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran," by Joshuah Bearman.  It's very interesting reading.  Assuming that Mr. Bearman got his facts straight, what you find out is that so much of what happens in the airport scenes in Argo have been fabricated or greatly exaggerated.  In this, one certainly has to cut both Terrio and Affleck some slack, some poetic license. They need to craft a drama, make a piece of entertainment.  But not only is every aspect of the passage through the airport and the various stages of inspection embellished, every tense moment gets stretched to an absurd degree.  The mission has been cancelled (it wasn't in reality), but Mendez decides to go ahead anyway.  Little does he know that the Swiss Air tickets for the group have been cancelled.  When O'Donnell back in Washington finds out that Mendez is going forward with the mission, he scrambles to get the tickets approved anew.  This involves not only a job-threatening confrontation - "Do your fucking job!" - but faking a  call from the school of Carter aide Hamilton Jordan's son so O'Donnell can get through to the White House, lest the group in Tehran not get their tickets and be (perhaps literally, as in the case of one such unfortunate Mendez sees suspended from a crane in the street) hung out to dry.  Mendez and his charges, made up to look as much like a film crew as they can, show up at the airport.  There are no tickets for them. "Could you check again, please?" he asks.  At the last possible moment, approval comes, and the screen in the Tehran airport blinks the good news.  Phew!  

This sort of thing continues at every stage of the desperate party's progress through the airport, the toughest test, as expected, coming from the no-fun-at-all Revolutionary Guards.  But even with this stretching of plot well past the point of actual history to the very limits of credulity, Affleck and Terrio are carrying the day.  But they just can't stop there.  After a tortuous interval, everyone is able to board the 747.  But wait!  The Iranians have finally realized that they have been duped, thanks to the untiring efforts of one of those sweatshop kids. A guard runs toward the terminal, screaming and pushing people out of the way.  The poor Swiss Air attendant gets shoved aside, but the door to the tarmac can't be pried open.  The flight is second on the runway for take off...well, you get the idea.  If nothing else, these ridiculous climactic scenes in Argo can serve as a cautionary tale to power-grabbing extremists trying to keep quality hostage material from fleeing the country.  Before you go running and screaming through the crowded airport, before you assail the poor girl at the airline counter, before you have to blow a hole in the glass door that will admit you to the tarmac and before - and I can't stress this point enough - before jumping in your conventionally and tragically earthbound truck or police car to chase a 747 jet down a runway to stop those slippery infidels from flying to freedom and further decadence, CALL THE TOWER FIRST, thereby stopping the plane in its considerable tracks.  Good thing those crazy Iranians didn't think of that.  

But, alas for frustrated Revolutionary Guards, they do go racing down the runway in the cars and trucks.  As the plane lifts off, Affleck might as well have placed our irrepressible old friend John McClane from the Die Hard films on one of the wings of the plane to jeer, " "Yippee kai yay, motherfuckers!"  U-S-A!




Before Mendez leaves for Iran, by way of Istanbul, O'Donnell tells him not to blow it.   Whether this is just an acknowledgement of the high stakes involved or perhaps has the double meaning of a reference to that state of Medez's career, is not entirely clear.  But it seems an apt metaphor for the state of Ben Affleck's career, not so much going into Argo but prior to his emergence as a film director.  Before the success of Gone Baby Gone, he had become as much a punchline as a Hollywood star.  For that first foray into directing, he wisely kept himself behind the camera.  But with The Town and now Argo, he has placed himself front and center.  And in the center of both films is a handsome vacuum.  The Town would have maintained a stronger connection to reality had it focused on Jeremy Renner's Jem character, instead of Affleck's sensitive armed rubber who possessed the magical ability to hurl waves of automatic weapon fire at police without killing a soul.   With Argo, Affleck doesn't begin to suggest any depth of feeling which can fill in the gaps left by Chris Terrio's sketchy characterization.  This beyond the fact that the film's star, even with that beard and darker hair, makes a decidedly Anglo-looking Mendez (Was Javier Bardem too expensive?  Benicio Del Toro not returning his calls?).  Affleck is obviously trying to establish himself as both a successful film director and a movie star at this point.  In terms of box office and public approval, he's doing rather well.  But there is an emptiness to the acting as well as the directing, despite his demonstrated competencies at both.  It is the effect of someone who can play the notes correctly but can't produce music which sounds true.  



Argo was produced by the team of George Clooney and Grant Heslov.  This makes perfect sense and at the same time is something of a disappointing surprise.  Heslov and Clooney also gave us Good Night and Good Luck (2005).  The two co-wrote the film, Heslov produced, while Clooney also acted and directed (and provided catering for the crew perhaps).  The  complicated story, if not political complexity, is the sort of thing that Clooney seems to seek out for his projects these days, as with last year's The Ides of March.  Good Night and Good Luck was drawn from an even more significant episode in American cultural and political history than Argo, the era of McCarthyism and the battle between the senator from Wisconsin and broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.  The timing of Clooney's film was clearly no accident, occurring as it did in the post-9/11 period when our vice president suggested that to question the policies of the sitting administration was to not "support the troops," risk being un-American or approach treason.  Clooney's selection of material made a statement, beyond the skill with which the film was executed.  

George Clooney has expressed his appreciation of American cinema of the late-60s and 1970s.  For all I know, Ben Affleck shares that appreciation.  Beyond the setting of Argo, which begins in the fall of 1979, Mr. Affleck signals both the period and (I think) the context in which he would like his film considered by utilizing not the contemporary Warner Brothers shield logo but the one used by the film company between 1972 and 1984.  This continues with the period fonts used for the opening titles and closing credits.  The implication is that Argo is a logical successor to some of those excellent, complex American films of the 1970s.  

What so many of those great 70s American films had was a point of view; not necessarily political, but intellectual.  There was a desire and ability to see beyond soothing projected images of the day, whether perpetrated by Hollywood or Washington D.C.  The friend with whom I saw Argo said that if the film had been made at the time, it probably would have been very different.  That's one of the more intelligent things I've heard anyone say about the Argo, assuming the "at the time" would be more consistent with the spirit of 70's era filmmaking and not all the shallow make-believe which was to come in the 1980s.  

Some, in their appreciation of Argo, have been quick to compare Affleck's film the with the 1970's output of the likes of Sidney Lumet, Alan Pakula, or even Martin Scorcese.  Watch any comparable film (Lumet's The Wiz (1978) would be an example of not comparable) from those directors from that decade and let me know if you see anything approaching the unambiguous and orchestrated uplift you get in one of Argo's final scenes.  Agent Mendez returns to the home of his son and estranged wife.  We see the couple embrace, while through the open front door of the house an American flag waves gently but reassuringly in the background.  This after we have seen men at C.I.A headquarters basically high-fiving one another at the success of the mission.   

Alan Pakula's Parallax View.  

There is a kind of montage in Argo, before Mendez joins the six Americans hiding out in Tehran.  We go from the staged script reading of the Argo screenplay in Hollywood, this part of the pretend production, complete with scantily-clad starlets and actors in science fiction costuming, to the statements issued by our government officials in Washington, to those of a young Iranian woman listing the demands of those who have taken the embassy and hold the hostages.  It is, briefly, the only attempt at complexity or insight that Argo even approaches.  The implication, perhaps, is that the justifications of those who take or hold power is often no different that the fiction produced by Hollywood  That notion, that it's all so much talk and storytelling, whether its coming from a rogue film producer, dictator or president, was the stuff Barry Levinson's hilarious and trenchant Wag The Dog.  But those are deeper waters that Affleck and Terrio seem able or willing to swim.  

The decision of Affleck and Chris Terrio to throw every plot-stretching device thinkable into the creation of tension in Argo is suspect.  Ultimately, it undoes some of the good work both men do in establishing that tension.  Far more troubling, creating a film in which the C.I.A. gets to play the heroes in the Iran situation is repugnant.  We can probably all agree that the rescue of the stranded Americans, like the eventual return of our 52 hostages was a good thing.  But like so many tragic interventions around the world, from Central and South America to the Middle East, the the fall of Iran to extremists is like too many situations in which the agency has worked to undermine democracy and prop up dictators not only corrupt but often responsible for the torture and murder of their own citizens.  The C.I.A. was instrumental in creating the terrible situation out of which the 1979 revolution was able to take place.  This point of view requires neither political bias nor the mind of a conspiracy theorist.  There is also the matter of the role of the Canadians, not to mention the life-risking help provided by citizens of New Zealand and Great Britain, under-emphasized or completely lost in this version of the story.    

There is before the start of the action in Argo, a capsule history of Iran.  It details the progression of Shahs, the democratic election of Mohammad Mosaddegh 1951, and the coup d'etat perpetrated by the governments of Britain and the United States in 1953 after Mosaddegh was presumptuous enough to nationalize Iran's petroleum industry (silly, silly man).  This, in the parlance of journalism, is what's called burying the lead.  It's all the more clever in the case of Argo, because it's buried right up front, getting that troubling information out of the way, so we can proceed to the more satisfying matter of our great intelligence agency playing the hero.  Mendez may have been an honorable agent, just as there are many well-meaning individuals who labor in fundamentally corrupt institutions.  But instead of bravely examining the myth-making so endemic to our government and history, Argo exploits it to create yet more distracting and comforting entertainment.  I'm not sure if this is a result of naivete on the part of Affleck, blind careerism, or some unfortunate combination thereof.  But that sort of vacuum is far more damning than empty performance or direction.  


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