Still of Ben Affleck and the Ayatollah from "Argo"
On the spectrum of recent U.S. films about intense life-and-death conflicts between Persians and "our guys', the most propagandistic, militaristic, and reactionary position is occupied by the reprehensible live-action cartoon 300. You could call this the "Kill Them All" position. On the opposite end of that spectrum, the most humanistic, egalitarian, and psychologically insightful position is occupied by the exquisite drama The House of Sand and Fog -- a chamber piece that shows how misunderstandings can spiral tragically out of control. You might call this the "Human Decency" position.
Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes lies the new movie Argo, directed by Ben Affleck for Smokehouse Pictures, the production company owned by George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Argo is about the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, and how the CIA came up with an unlikely rescue plan for six of the Americans hiding outside of the embassy: they would pretend to make a sci-fi movie. The premise has enormous potential, and it's easy to see why it would be attractive to Hollywood. Unfortunately, the finished product is nowhere near the "Human Decency" end of the spectrum. I think its liberal makers would be surprised and actually ashamed if they realized how much more it leans towards 300.
There is no doubt that Argo is a very ambitious film. It wants to be life-and-death serious, funny, and exciting all at once, and to join historical accuracy with breathless pacing, jokey put-downs of Hollywood, and an absurdist scheme at the story's core. As Affleck confided in an interview, it is also ambitious in its delicate tonal balance. It aims to be a taut suspense thriller that also provides some history of the strained relations between the U.S. and Iran, and it tries to re-create the 1970's vibe without being too cheesy or campy. All the while, of course, it is designed to be commercial, with a budget of $44 million -- the L.A. Times alleges that this makes it "one of the season's more daring gambles, the kind of movie most studios stopped making in the last decade."
At the same time, it seems to want to leave us with the takeaway that even in a nightmarish scenario, bitter differences can be resolved without bombing anyone. (At the premiere, the audience applauded President Carter's voiceover explaining that in the end we got all the hostages out, and we did it peacefully). The movie does show that deciding against a bloodbath can take courage and foresight. And perhaps this is what Affleck, Clooney, and Heslov believe made the movie the right thing to do right now -- even at the risk of stoking the fires of warmongers here at home in 2012, by raising the spectre of Americans imperiled by Iran.
Well, it achieves all those goals in spades, and I applaud its ambitions and its aplomb. But I wish it was considerably more ambitious.
Argo catapults between, as Affleck put it to the L.A. Times, "three different themes and three different worlds: the CIA, Hollywood, and the Iran tensions." Affleck's quote is informative: the third theme or world that he organized the film around was "Iran tensions', not Iran itself. Not even the Iranian revolution. The subject is the threat to Americans. Argo is about the plight of 6 Americans hiding out in Tehran after the embassy is seized, and it cuts away only to strategic debates at CIA headquarters as agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) struggles against bureaucratic inertia, or to comic relief scenes in Hollywood between John Goodman and Alan Arkin. No matter where our wheels touch down, it's Americans who matter. This is a movie that views Iran in the 1970s from the living-room where the 6 are hiding -- and the blinds are closed.
The cover story being used to try to smuggle the 6 hideaways out of Tehran is that they are location-scouting for a movie, so the day before they are to escape, they go out in public to make their aliases more believable. Do we, on the pretend location scout, finally see some of Tehran's cultural landmarks? Do we get a sense of an ancient civilization and a sophisticated culture? Do we have any panoramas of people going about their business in the complexity of a metropolitan city? No, because the Americans' expedition is just as claustrophobic as the scenes in their lair -- Affleck crowds them into a van, squeezes the van in a vice as they are swarmed by furious protesters, and then jostles them around in a packed bazaar that turns hostile. Of course, he's doing this deliberately for the tension it creates in them and in us. But throughout the film, the Iran we see in the news clips and the Iran we see dramatized are all on the same superficial level: incomprehensible, out-of-control hordes with nary an individual or rational thought expressed.