Lost in the bazaar: Ben Affleck as CIA operative Tony Mendez leads the six American diplomats he’s come to rescue down a street in Tehran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in Argo, an Affleck-directed political thriller based on an actual covert mission that involved putting a fake movie into pretended production and having the diplomats pose as members of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for their non-existent Star Wars rip-off.
If you sit still when the lights come on and the credits start to roll at the end of Argo---which you should do because 1. It’s a good movie and you should be sitting all the way through it anyway and 2. These days filmmakers are in the habit of opening up audience-rewarding Easter eggs during and after the credits of their movies and you should still be kicking yourself if you didn’t wait until the very, very last credit of The Avengers---you’ll see how proud Argo’s director and star Ben Affleck is of his movie’s visual historical accuracy. And you can’t blame him.
Affleck juxtaposes scenes from Argo with pictures of the real people and events that show how closely he’s captured the look and feel and sense of those long, terrible 444 days from November 1979 until January 1981 when Iranian revolutionaries held fifty-two American diplomats hostage within the seized U.S. embassy in Tehran and with them our national pride and, I’d argue, our collective mental balance.
It’s not just that many of the key players are the spitting images of their real-life counterparts (with one notable exception). That’s the easy part. It’s that the movie’s recreations of the scenes outside and inside the embassy and in the streets of Tehran more than look like the pictures on TV and in newspapers and magazines at the time---they have the same energy and evoke the same sense of something terrible, terrifying, and tragic happening right before our eyes and the same sense of frustration and helplessness that follows that godawful despairing realization that There’s nothing we can do!
If you’re old enough to remember the Hostage Crisis, though, you won’t need the pictures at the end to tell you how exactly Affleck and his cinematographer and designers got that right. You’ll have felt it right from the start.
That’s one of the very good things about Argo but it’s not the best thing. It makes the best things possible. If Affleck had been content with historical evocations, Argo would be a simple costume drama with blocky polyesters and bad facial hair choices in place of bustles and stovepipe hats.
Of course, the history doesn’t just drive the plot. The history is the plot. But it also provides Argo with its look, its feel, its mood, and one of its important themes.
On November 4, 1979, as the crowds of Iranian protesters and militants stormed the embassy, six members of the station slipped out the back and found sanctuary at the home of the Canadian ambassador and his wife, who hid them out for three months until the situation became dire and untenable. The Canadians were recalling the ambassador. The Iranians were on the hunt. There was nowhere else safe for them to hide. The fear back in Washington was that if they were caught they’d be treated as spies but if the U.S. tried to rescue them, the Iranians would take revenge on the fifty-two hostages at the embassy.
CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), who specialized in sneaking operatives, assets, and defectors out from under the noses of hostile governments, was tasked with developing a plan to get the six out. Inspired by his son’s love of Star Wars and Planet of the Apes, he came up with the idea of passing the six off as members of a Canadian film crew scouting desert locations for a science-fiction movie.
In real life the movie was called Lord of Light for which an actual script existed, based on the novel by Roger Zelazny. In Argo the movie is a Star Wars rip-off called…Argo. In order to fool any Iranians who might go looking for physical evidence that a movie is in production, Mendez makes a side-trip to Hollywood where with the help of an Oscar-winning make-up artist named John Chambers (a real person played by a lookalike John Goodman) and Lester Siegel, an irascible producer with a World War II secret service background and a patriotic streak that he forgot he had (Alan Arkin playing a composite of four actual people), he sets up a phony production company, secures “financing”, and generates public relations campaign that results in puff pieces in the trades.
Affleck and his director of photography Rodrigo Prieto have given Argo the gloomy and gritty texture of those films, conjuring up the same look and feel of a society that had given up on itself, of a world literally crumbling from neglect---summed up by an anachronistic shot of the iconic Hollywood sign falling to pieces, which really had happened, although by the time of the Hostage Crisis it had been put back together. and nobody seemed interested in putting it back together---the same mood of reasonable paranoia, the same sense of people taking shelter in lonely, little groups, hiding out from an almost sourceless menace. Mendez’s apartment in Virginia, his hotel room in Tehran, the kitchen of the Canadian Ambassador’s house reminded me of Faye Dunaway’s basement apartment in Three Days of the Condor and Jane Alexander’s character’s sister’s house in All the President’s Men. And I couldn’t help thinking of President Carter looking lost and alone in his self-imposed imprisonment in the White House. Throughout the movie, Carter is mostly seen on television sets in the background in real news footage, looking shrunken, isolated, trapped, and ignored. In those ‘70s political thrillers, the threat comes from a secret source inside the government, if not from the government itself. In Argo, the government is as threatened and baffled as everyone else.
I feel like I’m making Argo sound unremittingly grim and didactic as well. It’s neither. It’s not exactly light-hearted but it is full of humor and not all of it of the gallows kind. The movie has a satirical edge, although the edge is of a blade fingered behind the back rather than drawn and pointed. Its targets are Hollywood, of course, but the government, politics, bureaucracy, and the spy game come in for it and, to a darker and more circumspect degree, so does the Iranian Revolution, which produced its own absurd bureaucracies and brand of politicians.
But in all cases the humors arises not from the institutions or systems being satirized but from the people who make them up. Argo’s Hollywood is a collection of lunatics among whom eccentrics like Chambers and Siegel connive to thrive and survive. Mendez, Chambers, and Siegel have no trouble setting up their phony production company. The easy joke would be that that’s because one way or another everybody in the business is a phony and the whole industry depends on all these phonies pretending not to notice each other’s phoniness. But in Argo it’s more the case of everyone being too caught up in their own problems to pay close attention to what others are up to. It turns out to be a similar case among the Iranians, with the difference being that people’s individual problems are often matters of life and death. Revolutionary Iran is a scary place even for revolutionaries. But Mendez’s plan depends on individual Iranians having too much else to worry about besides whether or not he might be a spy.
Affleck takes the view that no matter how dire the circumstances get, people will be people and that means that they’re often ridiculous. We’re funny that way. But it’s one of the things that makes us strong and resilient. We just can’t take it all in. Our egos and vanities and misperceptions get in the way. Our best defense is that we aren’t aware enough to realize how much trouble we’re in. It’s a likable trait, even admirable in its way, and it’s the root of our commonality. Before we’re anything else, an American spy or an Iranian revolutionary, we are ourselves. We just can’t help it.
To illustrate this point, Affleck fills Argo with characters being themselves despite themselves. All of them, from the leads and supports, and cameos to the nameless bureaucrats and spies in Washington and at Langley, to the bit players, stagehands, suits, and hangers-on in Hollywood, to the Iranian citizens, soldiers, shopkeepers, low-level government officials, and airport workers, are given dialog, even if only a line or two, or a shot in a scene that reveals them as distinct individuals with feelings and thoughts that transcend their function in the plot.
The odd exceptions are the six diplomats Mendez is trying to rescue who are differentiated mainly by their their hairstyles and shirt collar widths. One of the six is given more lines and screen time than any of the others but for the most part he’s the spokesmen for their collective fears, doubts, and regrets. Except for one scene, and it’s a redeeming exception, he doesn’t speak for himself or, rather, he doesn’t speak as a particular self we get to know and understand on his own terms. I’m guessing Affleck and his screenwriter, Chris Terrio, were being tactful and taking into consideration the feelings of the of the real people all of whom are still alive and probably still haunted by their ordeal and Affleck may have been too careful about not seeming to exploit it or them they wouldn’t like to see it or them for dramatic effect.
But while this weakness may be deliberate and understandable, it’s all the more glaring because of how vividly almost all the other characters in the movie are portrayed.
Argo is an ensemble piece. Affleck is undoubtedly the star and his character is the hero, but although it’s a star’s part, it requires him not to do a star turn. The job he’s given himself is to be the calm center around which the craziness swirls. He builds a sheltered space where we can stand with him and watch and think along with him. In fact, much of his performance is watching and thinking. The showier work is left to others, with Goodman and Arkin getting the best of it and having the most obvious fun.
As Chambers and Siegel, they make a dueling but amusingly complementary pair of cynics. Different types of cynics. Chambers is the good-natured, forgiving type, amused by other people’s foolishness but grateful for it because it allows him to lead his two lives as artist and spy. Goodman plays him with an almost permanent grin as if he’s on the brink of bursting into a hearty laugh that will give away the whole game. Siegel is a cynic of the self-loathing kind whose disdain for humanity in general begins with disdain for himself in particular. Siegel has himself convinced that he’s not doing anything worthwhile with his life. It’s a feeling leftover from his glory days an intelligence officer in World War II. Making movies, even award-winning ones, just doesn’t compare to fighting Nazis. But like most movie cynics he’s a closet romantic and an idealist and, while profanely and grumpily expressing reluctance, he jumps at the chance to get back to meaningful work. Since he’s played by Alan Arkin, however, he’s even grumpier and more profane in his idealism than in his cynicism.
Bryan Cranston and Chris Messina, as Mendez’s immediate superior at the CIA and the agent in charge of operations in the control room at Langley, have almost as much to do as Affleck in roles that allow them to be more active and show more range than the star’s own. Bob Gunton as Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Philip Baker Hall in an uncredited appearance as Vance’s unnamed deputy who almost certainly is meant to be Warren Christopher have one brief scene together that apart from its effectiveness in its own right serves up one of the best Muppet jokes ever not made by the Muppets themselves. Richard Kind turns up as a shark of a Hollywood agent who is almost a match in cynicism and irascibility for Arkin’s Siegel. Adrienne Barbeau turns up an a fiery cameo as one of Siegel’s ex-wives. Zeljko Ivanek and Keith Szarabajka bluster and storm as State Department officials and capture the frustration and desperate need to do something, anything, but what? that gripped not just the administration but much of the entire country.
Compelling in quieter roles are Kyle Chandler as Carter’s Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan, Victor Garber and Page Leong as Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and his wife Pat, Sheila Vand as their young Iranian housekeeper Sahar whose loyalties are a mystery even to herself, Ali Saam as a member of the Revolutionary guard who comes calling at the Canadian embassy and tests Sahar’s loyalties, and Hooshang Tooze as the Deputy Minister of Islamic Guidance who is probably something more than the simple bureaucrat he presents himself to Mendez as being.
The last three along with other actors playing Iranians of all sorts and conditions are important to Affleck’s determination to individualize the Iranians and make us see the Revolution through their eyes and not as the angry mobs we saw on TV at the time. This doesn’t mean that he wants us to sympathize with the revolution. The Iranians are shown as dangerous and implacable enemies of the United States, which, although Affleck doesn’t shy away from our transgressions and mistakes and crimes in the Middle East, is still us to the Iranians them. But sorting out the good guys from the bad guys isn’t the issue. and the question of who’s right and who’s wrong---or who’s more right or less wrong---is irrelevant because it’s irrelevant to the characters in the movie. They can’t do anything about it and figuring out an answer won’t help them solve their problem at the moment.
Which brings me back to the way Affleck uses history in Argo.
Affleck and Terrio grant themselves a good deal of dramatic license, naturally. It wouldn’t be a Hollywood movie without the filmmakers taking liberties with the facts. And Argo is a movie, a thriller not a docudrama. But Affleck never lets us forget the reality behind his story. As I said, it does more than drive the plot. It gives Argo its mood and its tension. And it’s vital thematically.
Affleck lets us know from the beginning and keeps reminding us that we’re not to expect a sense of triumph if Mendez pulls this off. At best we’ll feel relieved. Then he keeps the pressure on so that intensely that relief, if it comes, will be enough. We’re not allowed to see the operation as a potential surrogate victory over the Iranians or even a moral one. This is a job that has to be done for its own sake. It will have no effect on the larger crisis except in that if the mission fails it might make things worse.
There are times when there really isn’t anything we can do. There are problems that can’t be solved. There are situations where even someone as powerful as the President of the United States has no control. Under those circumstances, when success isn’t an option, despair and surrender are temptations that must still be resisted. The best thing we can do is do our jobs, to exercise what little control we have in the little sphere in which we still have it, and instead of holing up by ourselves, reach out to those nearest whom we can help. We have to take care of each other.
“I’ve never left anyone behind,” Mendez tells the six people he’s come to rescue.
He’s not boasting. He’s not merely trying to be encouraging. He’s stating a simple fact. This is his job, to make sure no one gets left behind.
That’s all our jobs.
No matter what else, we’re here to make sure none of us gets left behind.
Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on a Wired article by Joshuah Bearman. Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, and Chris Messina. Rated R. Now in theaters.