I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film get undermined by its own special features before Argo. The Best Picture contender – and supposedly the surefire winner – comes to Blu-ray today with a handsome transfer, strong audio presentation and a string of special features detailing the production and the real-life events that inspired the movie. The problem is that one of those features, “Escape from Iran: The Hollywood Option,” is so informative about the actual story that the version Ben Affleck directed loses a lot of its luster by comparison.
Argo is a good movie. I’m not denying that. The film is a richly textured account of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, focusing on the efforts of CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to exfiltrate a group of American refugees hiding in the Canadian consulate immediately following the initial takeover. The only way to get them out of the country is through the airport, so Mendez has to concoct a plausible cover story for why a group of Americans (posing as Canadians) would be in the country despite the obvious political turmoil taking place at the time. His rather nifty idea was to say they were all location scouts for a big budget Star Wars knock-off, and to support this cover he enlisted Oscar-winning makeup effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who had assisted the CIA before by crafting disguises on their missions. Together they made it appear that their fictional film, called “Argo,” was really being produced in Hollywood, in order to fool any Iranian officials who could potentially call their bluff.
That’s an interesting set-up for a story, but I’m not convinced that Argo does anything terribly interesting with it. At its core, Argo tells a simple story about how a CIA agent forged some fake identities with help from the Canadian government, and then went to Iran and drove six people to the airport. The “Hollywood” angle, while colorful and well told, is just window dressing for an incredibly straightforward spy story, and only it factors into the actual mission when the refugees are forced to act their parts in public and scout an actual location, and then later prove their identities to security guards at the airport… two things that, as we learn in “Escape from Iran: The Hollywood Option,” never even happened.
“Artistic license” is an important phrase to mention here, and certainly Argo’s attempts to spruce up its storyline are relatively benign to the actual events, even though much of the historical context is fudged to make for a more exciting motion picture. The problem is that these additions to the storyline – including the last-minute crisis of faith on behalf of the White House, the thrilling chase at the airport, and the list goes on – are all just conventional suspense sequences that artificially fluff a story that couldn’t even exist without them. In reality, Tony Mendez established the elaborate backstory for “Argo” but was never even questioned about it. In reality, the hostages went to the airport and were only briefly delayed the airline. In reality, that’s not much of a movie.
So the makers of Argo made one simple change and put this cover story to the test. That’s a natural extrapolation of the real-life events, but as implemented here, it’s just fluff. Ben Affleck and his screenwriter Chris Terrio tacked on movie conventions to make the cover story seem more important than it really was. The first time I watched Argo, before I knew more about the real events behind it, I was invested but I also felt that somehow I was being jerked around. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it certainly felt that the ending was overblown and amounted to little more than artificially ratcheted suspense. Now I know exactly why I got this impression in the first place – because the movie couldn’t work without heavy-handed, clichéd fictionalization – I can’t say I like the story any more. Now I only seem capable of focusing on the parts that feel unnecessary to the actual plot.
For example: the extended sequence of Mendez traveling to Hollywood and setting up “Argo” in the first place is treated as a digression from the important realities of real world politics by Affleck himself – who juxtaposes a reading of “Argo’s” ridiculous script with news footage of the hostage crisis – but it also plays like a digression from the meat of the movie. It doesn’t have any tangible effect on the actual story, in real life or in the film. Hell, even in Affleck’s sensationalized version, the only thing Mendez really needed to do in order to exfiltrate the refugees was get some storyboards, take out an ad in Variety and set up a phone line in Los Angeles. He never needed to go to Los Angeles at all. And that’s in the trumped up “movie” version of the events. Everything else is padding, and everything that isn’t padding is extremely simple.
So I’m not in love with Argo, but it’s not “bad.” It’s just not the Best Picture of any year I can think of. The only reason to watch Argo is because it’s heavily padded, and while it works pretty well regardless, I wouldn’t hold that up as an example of high quality filmmaking. It’s just "pretty good." A nifty little potboiler, worth seeing, worth enjoying, but probably more worthy of a rental than a Best Picture Oscar.