Was there ever a subject for a dramatization “Based on True Events” more ripe for the loving arms of Hollywood than the “Canadian Caper” that played out during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis? A spy thriller involving the movie industry can easily become a spy thriller about the movie industry, and amid report after endless report on the demise of filmgoing as a form of popular entertainment, few industries are as given to navel gazing as the one that produces motion pictures. Enter Argo, which is at least distinguishable from other military-grade propaganda pieces in that its the work of Ben Affleck, a director whose love of movies and whose skill at arranging gigantic casts assures that this one, at least, passes with a knowing smile.
It was a stroke of dumb luck that six U.S. ambassadors escaped from the embassy in Tehran, secreting themselves away under the floorboards of the Canadian ambassador’s home. Extracting them would be no mean feat, but then, extracting people from high risk areas is what Tony Mendez (Affleck) is an expert at. Competing against a litany of dud proposals at the CIA, Mendez gets the green light to pass the six escapees off as the crew of Canadian filmmakers in Teheran scouting for exotic locales upon which to stage a low budget Star Wars ripoff, Argo. In this, he is aided by producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who are as skeptical as Mendez’s supervisor (Bryan Cranston) about the odds of the mission’s success, but are willing to make some magic.
Argo is all about prep-work, spending most of its time showing the set-up of the dummy Hollywood studio and Mendez’s preparation of the six escapees. Setting up the studio isn’t hard, but there’s an element of human error in crafting new identities for six scared human beings. Should one of them slip, they’ll all be killed. Mendez gives his charges fake passports and a folder full of false information and tells them to memorize all of it. Meanwhile, in the occupied U.S. embassy, an army of child laborers are at work finding and assembling stacks of shredded, confidential documents, among them the proper identification of the six people missing from their group of hostages.
Argo works just fine as a race against the clock, but is undermined somewhat by the reality behind it. Though Mendez and his team’s “location scouting” trip to an Iranian bazaar is fraught with tension, it’s the only moment in the movie where things aren’t too easy for all involved. The situation is dangerous because Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio say it is, and because the men and women trapping our Americans in an alleyway are dark-skinned and yelling in another language.
The Hollywood element also fails to rise above reality. As good as Arkin and Goodman are, their characters are Los Angeles stereotypes: gruff, likable cynics who wink and nod their way through press events and production meetings without really adding much to the narrative. Like The Town, Affleck’s 2010 ensemble crime movie that enjoys a popular consensus much more favorable than is merited, Affleck takes a situation imbued with a grey sense of morality and casts it in stark black and white. If The Town suffered because Affleck tried to make a paragon out of bank robbing liar Doug MacRay, Argo suffers because the Iranian Revolution is merely the backdrop for a spy thriller, its antagonists more zombie than human. The Iranians here shout, grope, and carry automatic weapons, but they’re still only obstacles for the shepherd to lead his flock around.
2012 was a year that saw plenty of movies released that, in one way or another, involved the moral ambiguity of deep cover spy operations. All of them, even The Avengers, had more to say on the subject than Affleck’s film. The vast majority of investigative reporting here is done by the great newsanchors of the day, and while Good Night, and Good Luck (directed by George Clooney and written by Grant Heslov, who produced Argo) showed to tremendous effect the greatness to which the American media could rise and the darkness the American government is capable of wallowing in, Argo is just fine celebrating the success of a high-stakes gambit. Even more than Zero Dark Thirty, Argo posits itself as a feature length infomercial for the CIA, telling us that there are good guys and bad guys, and that the good guys listen to Led Zeppelin and worry about their kids back home. It’s finely done and entertaining enough, but certainly is not a film made for our jaded, information-glutted time.
Argo. With Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Tate Donovan (Bob Anders), Clea DuVall (Cora Lijek), Christopher Denham (Mark Lijek), Scoot McNairy (Joe Stafford), Kerry Bishé (Kathy Stafford), Rory Cochrane (Lee Schatz), Victor Gerber (Ken Taylor), and Kyle Chandler (Hamilton Jordan). Directed by Affleck and produced by Affleck, Grant Heslov, and George Clooney. Screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on the books “The Master of Disguise” by Antonio J. Mendez and “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman.