If there’s a movie that’s arrived in theaters aided more by the tailwinds of current events than Ben Affleck’s Argo, an espionage thriller about the Canadian caper, in which the Central Intelligence Agency faked a Hollywood movie production to spirit six Americans out of Iran after they slipped out of the embassy as it came under siege by hardline students. A handsome, sophisticated, if exceedingly overstuffed caper movie, Argo should also get credit for being exceptionally nuanced about America’s role in Iran. But ultimately, Argo has too much to handle to make its characters as engaging as its geopolitics, and even then, it falters in its willingness to treat its audience like intelligent adults.
In the introduction to Argo, Affleck, from a script by Chris Terrio, briskly introduces the issues at stake—Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh’s nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, the American support of Shah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Iranian Revolution, the decision to give the Shah access to medical treatment in the United States, and rising tensions at the embassy—while drawing a clear line between those national policy decisions and the views of the people who would shortly be imprisoned there or in hiding in Canada’s embassy in Iran.”What do you expect? We let the guy torture and deball an entire nation,” one diplomat says of the crowd growing outside the embassy. “So great, we’ll take in any punk as long as he’s got cancer?” another complains of the Shah’s arrival in the U.S.
As it becomes clear that embassy security may be breached—in a frightening echo of recent events in Libya, two diplomats watch the crowds mass while wondering “The windows are supposed to be bullet-proof, right?” and reflect that they’ve “Never been tested.”—the people who will shortly become hostages show off an array of complicated emotions. Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) warns his staff about what will happen to the Iranians waiting in line “If they get caught applying for visas to the U.S.” The head of security warns his men “Don’t fucking shoot anybody. You don’t want to be the assholes who started a war.” They burn and shred documents, concerned for themselves and their country, however conflicted they feel about it.
But once the embassy has been taken and the six members of the staff have ensconced themselves with the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), the movie doesn’t have much more time to spend with them, exploring their ideas about what’s happening in the country where they once represented their own. “She begged for us to leave. She packed our bags. And I told her, just a little bit longer,” Mark (Christopher Denham) reflects of his wife’s concern for their safety prior to the takeover, which he tamped down in favor of trying to advance his foreign service career. But the movie is more concerned with the men trying to get them out of the country than their captivity.
To a certain extent, that makes sense because the cast of characters involved with the escape is so good. There’s Tony Mendez (Affleck himself), an exfiltration specialist who comes up with the idea of the movie ploy after rejecting suggestions to have the escapees bike out (“We can send in tricycles and meet them at the border with Gatordade,” he suggests.), have them pose as aid workers, or foreigners who have picked the worst possible time to shoot in Iran. “Everyone knows they’d shoot in Stalingrad with Pol Pot directing if it’d sell tickets,” he promises of the Hollywood ploy. Jack (Bryan Cranston) is supportive but skeptical of any chance of success. “Brace yourself. It’s like talking to those two old fucks on the Muppets,” he tells Tony as they go into a meeting with the State Department, which is ostensibly running the operation. And in Hollywood there are Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman), a producer and a prosthetics artist who take to the project of setting up a fake movie, complete with Variety coverage and table reads, with enormous gusto.
Argo’s come under some criticism for treating the movie-making business if it were merely smoke and mirrors, rather than an art form, but it actually does precisely the opposite, suggesting a commonality of culture despite political and religious differences. “They got cousins who sell prayer rugs and eight tracks on La Brea,” Chambers reminds Tony before he leaves, suggesting that Hollywood may be the point of greatest agreement between Iran and America at a fraught time. “The exotic Orient. Snake charmers, flying carpets. You come to us at an interesting time,” a culture minister tells Tony as he approves Argo‘s shooting script in Iran. “Before the Revolution, 40 percent of Tehran movie theaters were showing pornography.” It’s not clear whether he’s wistful or condemnatory. Later, the escapees show Revolutionary Guards the storyboards for Argo, narrating the flimsy story with space ship noises. The young men fall for it, talking through the sketches after the escapees board their plane. The dream of travel to another planet holds sway even for those trying to create a perfect republic through any means necessary here on earth.
The problem with focusing on the plot, though, is that it’s dependent at least in part on the skill of the escapees to carry off their masquerade. And because we know them so little, the movie rushes through shorthand for how they behave under pressure—the only one of them to really get an arc is a tense, angry man who is initially unwilling to take a chance on Tony’s plan, but who ends up narrating that storyboard talk because he’s the one with the best Farsi. Argo ends up relying more on artificially white-knuckle timing of certain details of the escape more than on character development in its final episodes, an unfortunate decision that hollows out the very exciting chase sequence at the culmination of the escape.
But I was actually even more disappointed by the sentimentality of Argo‘s ending than some of the choices the very full movie had to make to save time. There’s something especially grating about an ending image that frames Tony in the door way of his wife’s Virginia house, embracing her in an act of reconciliation, with an American flag blowing in the autumn breeze behind them. America may be mom and apple pie, but the sentimentality of the shot is a betrayal of the admirably even-handed approach to American ideals and impact on the world that, along with the tense direction and action sequences, made the movie’s opening scenes so remarkable. A more fitting departure might have been a scene of Sahar, the Iranian housekeeper at the Canadian embassy who kept the escapees’ secret, fleeing over the border into Iraq, a country with which Iran would soon be at war, that sad irony a reminder that for all of America’s myopia, there are other nations with other interests making moves on the world stage. “Carter said you were a great American,” Jack tells Tony, who asks him. “A great American what?” “He didn’t say,” Jack tells him ruefully. Argo is at its best when it’s reckoning with the complicated, conflicted meanings of the American flag rather than wrapping itself in the banner.