Sunday, March 24, 2013
The CIA-led Iranian coup of 1953, which deposed Mohammed Mossadegh in favor of Shah Reza Pahlavi, was something of a Patient Zero in the warped relationship the United States has with the Middle East. The Shah became one of the world's most despised leaders and the Iranian people, quite rightly it turned out, blamed the United States (and the UK) for meddling in its internal affairs in favor of a man who ran the country as a ruthless autocrat. The Muslim world in general came to distrust the intentions of the United States, and the end of the Cold War focused that mistrust into a mutually-held fear of the Other.
I don't mean to damn Argo with faint praise when I say that its opening section, when it summarizes this history in the form of a Persepolis-esque series of cartoon images, is perhaps its most impressive. Director Ben Affleck manages to hit the major points in this history in an interesting visual way, setting the scene for the film's tableau during the 1979 revolution that ended the Shah's reign and put Ayatollah Khomeini in charge of the country. It is, to be fair, at least a slightly simplified history, mostly leaving out the justified fear that the Western powers had that Mossadegh would draw Iran closer to the Soviet sphere of influence in favor of a purely oil-based justification, but it is still very effective.
As everyone surely knows by know, Argo is the story of six American diplomats who managed to escape the US Embassy in Tehran for the Canadian ambassador's residence just prior to the 1979 hostage crisis, and their extrication from the country before they were discovered by the Ayatollah's agents. Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, an exfiltration specialist, who concocts a cover story in which the six diplomats pretend to be the Canadian film crew for a Hollywood-produced, low-budget science fiction movie named Argo (in reality, an adaptation of a fairly well known science fiction novel, Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light.) John Goodman and Alan Arkin portray the production team that helped Mendez build the cover story, and Bryan Cranston plays Mendez's boss at the CIA.
Argo neatly cleaves into two stories - there is the plight of the six diplomats, both before Mendez shows up to help them and after, and there is the story of Mendez putting together a fake movie in sun-drenched 70's Hollywood. The mid-film tonal shift into the Hollywood portion is somewhat jarring, but Affleck has enough confidence as a filmmaker (and as an old Hollywood veteran himself, who certainly knows his subjects as well as anyone) to make it work. It helps that Goodman and Arkin give the film its two most interesting characters, Hollywood hustlers par excellence who see the Argo plan as their one big shot to do something of true substance. The six diplomats are much less well-defined - the film only gives them a few scenes to develop as characters, and other than the way they wear their hair (and facial hair) it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart, except for the fact that a few of them are played by semi-recognizable actors (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall and Rory Cochrane are the three whose names I knew). Mendez is also something of a problem - Affleck gives himself by far the biggest role in the film, and while his performance is perfectly serviceable, it lacks anything remotely resembling a spark. I tried to think about how I would recast the role, and my initial instinct was Mark Ruffalo, but there are just a lot of working actors who would have brought more to the role than Affleck is capable of.
But we're not here to discuss Affleck the actor, who is what he is, we're here to talk about Affleck the filmmaker. And while I thought the storytelling was solidly delivered in Argo (despite the relative flatness of the characters) my biggest complaint of the film was just how flop-sweaty some of the thriller elements were. There are just too many scenes where everything is on the knife's edge of completely falling apart, and while I am willing to allow some dramatic license to enhance the story, at some point I just stopped believing what was happening on screen in any meaningful way. The story that Argo is based on is a fascinating one, and I wish Affleck had trusted in its details more, and embellished them less (some of this also has to rest on the shoulders of screenwriter Chris Terrio). It is still a good film, and the storytelling is extremely efficient. I have yet to see The Town, but between this film and Gone Baby Gone, Affleck certainly has an eye for the lived-in details of the worlds he is creating (the Argo table read in the Hollywood section is worth the price of admission all by itself, like Ed Wood's version of the Star Wars cantina). I wish this film had more trust that the audience would follow the real details of the story, as opposed to the Hollywood-ized version, but I suppose that's what happens when you make a fake film within a real film about real events. On some level, everything that comes out of Hollywood is bullshit, and eventually it all comes down to arguing about degrees. B