Ben Affleck’s third directorial venture—the first two having compensated for the modicum of talent he has shown in his long acting career—has all the ingredients of a pulp thriller. Breakneck pace, crackling dialogues, a setting charged with antagonism, an unreal but nail-biting climax.
It is loosely based on true events. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) launched a covert operation to rescue six American diplomats trapped in the Canadian ambassador’s house in Tehran, Iran, during the 1979 hostage crisis. Tony Mendez, an “exfil” or exfiltration specialist, hatched a risky plan to get the six out of Tehran. Affleck tampers with the real story with abandon (the original account by Mendez can be read at the CIA’s official website: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/winter99-00/art1.html) For dramatic effect, writer Chris Terrio adds situations, most of which make the Iranians look either like menacing hate-mongerers or loyal servants, to what was in reality a smooth, hitch-free mission. Affleck’s recreation of history has assiduous detail. The year 1979, when the Iran hostage crisis erupted during Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime, is in the costumes, the newspapers and every object and human being prominently visible on screen. Very little can go wrong with a cinematographer like Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain Biutiful and Lust, Caution, among many others). The result then is a film with visual finesse and high standards of production. The film is already making it to the Oscar buzz.
Argo has the same problem that afflicted The Hurt Locker, though it does not achieve the tautness and explosive power of The Hurt Locker in storytelling. A suave representative of the invincible military establishment of the US navigates the Orient, the dark Muslim world, while gung-ho America waits. The singularly American point of view not only glorifies and embellishes the mission, but does so by stripping the Other—in this case, Iranians in the throes of a revolution demanding the return of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Khomeini’s predecessor, from the US so he can be tried in the country he brutalized—of heroism, and of humanity. Every Iranian in this film is a cardboard enemy figure which the Americans can’t understand.
The story begins with the seize. On 4 November 1979, revolutionaries stormed the US consulate in Tehran. Affleck builds up tension in the introductory sequence with swift cutaways. Sixty-six people were taken hostage. Six diplomats escaped from the back entrance in the nick of time and drove to the house of the Canadian ambassador. Their refuge is secret, though the ambassador’s Iranian maid is privy to it. At the CIA headquarters, “exfil” expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) dismisses every plan that the CIA hatches to rescue the six Americans in Tehran. The best bad idea Tony has is to launch a fake film, “a Star Wars rip-off set in the Middle East”. He approaches his Hollywood contacts, a legendary prosthetics artiste, John Chambers (John Goodman), who takes him to producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Lester is befuddled by the idea of a fake that could have such far-reaching results, but he agrees.
The subplot of Argo, smartly written, is about the workings of Hollywood. It’s an insider mocking the way Hollywood works. Some of the lines are genuinely funny (“If I’m doing a fake movie, it is going to be a fake hit,” says Lester.) The subplot takes Argo to a genre unto itself, part political thriller, part micro satire.
With the help of the Hollywood wizards, Tony creates a fake campaign, and soon reaches Tehran. The two women and four men in hiding, mistrustful and sceptical in the beginning, soon give in because this is their only chance to escape. The grave, martyr-like disposition of these men and women is in focus, and the larger, troubled backdrop of Iran fades into inconsequence. All we are made to see, and see relentlessly, is how precarious the lives of the six Americans are. The lead-up to the climax is orchestrated like a B-grade thriller, suspense heaped on suspense, until the film’s bizarre, but extremely gripping climax.
The performances are stellar. Affleck leaves the big jobs to be done by greats like Arkin, Goodman, Richard Kind, Philip Baker Hall and Bryan Cranston, in smaller roles. He adopts a deadpan persona and pulls off the role of the CIA dude.
So Argo has some things going for it. But in essence, it is boring cinema because everything in it is so black and white, insular and prissy. The end is an overstretched montage of celebratory scenes, where the success of Tony’s mission is recognized. Heroes are made. Tony even has a reconciliation with his estranged wife and son. The mediocrity that Affleck ridicules in his subplot seems to become his film.
Argo releases in theatres on Friday.