Ben Affleck’s third film, Argo, tells the true story of a group of Americans who were trapped inside Iran during the infamous hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980. The story is that an ambitious CIA man named Tony Mendez (Affleck) hired a film studio to establish a fake sci-fi feature film so that he could go into Iran on a fake location scout, and fly out the six American consulate workers posing as a Canadian film crew. Yes, in order to make the cover story stick, a real film studio was involved, there was a real script, and production and marketing did officially begin on the film, called Argo. The extraction was, as history proved, successful.
Argo teases the audience with its more comic elements, and, for a few minutes, it looks like it is going to be more of a send-up of Hollywood than a political thriller. But, by the end, the film proves to be more of an outright comment on the difficulty of the mission, and the arm of the Carter administration that took care of this mission. By extension, Argo seems to be pointing to Carter’s effectiveness as a president, and how the hostage crisis, however successful, dictated American politics. Some have said that Ronald Reagan would never have been elected were it not for the hostage crisis.
I think I appreciate that approach, as it makes the film feel more relevant than yet another yuk-fest Hollywood satire about how the filmmaking world is peppered with bitter producers who constantly butt heads with passionate artists. Affleck has proven with Argo (and with his two previous features Gone Baby Gone and The Town) that he has an eye for intense moody drama that takes place in a stirringly authentic world. The mission (and by extension Argo), then, was never about the fake movie, and more about saving the lives of these poor Americans who are hiding out in the home of the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber). The situation was tense, and a chance was taken on a bizarre scheme that involved a sci-fi movie, and some actual film producers (played in the movie by Alan Arkin and John Goodman).
I mentioned authenticity. The look and feeling of the 1970s is spot-on. The bad suits, the brownish interiors, the goofy mustaches, the flat male hairdos, the ubiquitous smoking. There hasn’t been a film to nail the ‘70s this accurately since David Fincher’s Zodiac. What’s more, I’m sure Affleck did a lot of his homework as to how the CIA operated through the crisis, and did plenty of research to make all the visuals resemble the then-common news reports on the story. I’ve never worked for the CIA, but I did get the impression that this was all accurate. What’s more, my wife, who is a proper rock snob, informed me that none of the period music was out-of-date; a pet peeve of many is when a period piece will use period-inappropriate music on its soundtrack. Argo nails this too. Heck, even some of the action figures, seen in the background of some scenes, were available in 1979 and not after. While this sort of authenticity doesn’t necessarily make for a good film, it’s always appreciated.
Luckily, Argo is a good film. It’s a simple (complex) story about a real mission, and the real danger that real people were in. I compare it to Apollo 13. A tense and real situation that you may not know much about, and handled with respect and taut accuracy. Its politics are subtle, its performances are good, and its script is amazing.
I wonder what the screenwriter of the original sci-fi film Argo would have to say about his script being used as a cover for the CIA. Let’s track down that guy next.