Argo (2012), dir. Ben Affleck, Academy Award nominee for Best Picture
Argo. A very debatable movie: to some the worst Best Picture nominee; to some the best film of the year; to some a smart cinematic achievement and interesting movie and to some its simply Argo, fuck yourself. I think I can place myself under no.3.
I saw Argo some two months ago and I must admit (even some might end up calling me ignorant) I really enjoyed it. I also must admit that the minute I saw the inscription: “Based on a true story” my brain sort of switched of because I knew I was about to watch a full head-on Hollywood achievement which is not a true story or a first hand experience but in fact an Affleck movie based on a true story. Why is the word based of such importance? Well, with this one word Affleck managed to: (a) distance himself from the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help him God and (b) to add and distort as much as he wanted under the guise of dramatic purposes. Film is first and foremost about entertaining the masses, right? To those who want a history lesson in Iranian hostage crisis, my suggestion is – go, get a book. The second hint on how Argo is actually not going to tell us much about the Iranian hostage crises (if anything at all) was the title itself, Argo.
Before we get into that I would like to lay out the premise of Affleck’s Argo. Argo’s central, crazy storyline—in which the CIA establishes a fake movie production, complete with a full script and ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, in order to rescue six Americans stranded in post-revolutionary Iran—is 100 percent true, and pretty incredible. (The movie Argo is largely based on an article by Joshuah Bearman published five years ago in Wired, which, I would suggest, all of you should read. The script also draws on a memoir by Antonio Mendez, the man that Affleck plays in the film). Apart from the basic premise and to some degree a very good prologue everything else is distorted because after all this is just a movie, which never presents itself falsely as a historical and overly serious film. Argo is neither of those, unlike let’s say Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) or Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
In the conversation with a friend I noted how everyone have problem with this film from Canadians, British,Mexicans over Americans to Iranians. So let us begin with the Canadians.
The problem Canadians have with this movie is in regards to the degree of their involvement with the actual events. 30 years ago, Canada received complete credit for the rescue, because the USA was worried about possible repercussions if CIA involvement was publicized. Argo overcorrects that version of events downplaying the actual extent of Canadian involvement, which was considerable. The Americans were housed by two Canadians: the Ambassador Ken Taylor, and a Canadian embassy employee, John Sheardown (In the film, all of them stay with Taylor; Sheardown does not appear at all as if he doesn’t exist) Furthermore, It was Taylor who cabled Washington urging them to begin the escape plan, and once the plan was decided on, it was Canadians who “scouted the airport, sent people in and out of Iran to establish random patterns and get copies of entry and exit visas, bought three sets of airline tickets” (see more here). Almost none of that appears in Argo. British on the other hand, had problem with the fact that Argo explicitly says how they’ve turned down the American 6, which is also untrue. Most of the American critics however, have problem with the escape, that is the airport scene, which served as the movie’s climax and was overly dramatic in a true Hollywood spirit. I agree. Affleck’s version involves every conceivable complication known to a man. And he does this for only one purpose, to make the movie more exciting. Which is fine, but it’s a bit over the top, even for my taste for I am the sucker for American clichés. To make things worse, it was Mendez himself who actually said how the trip through airport was ‘smooth as silk’. But in Affleck’s defense, I would like to ask you to imagine the true version of events – they reach the airport, board the plane smoothly, fly back home, the end. Not as exciting now is it? Furthermore, in the movie, the U.S. government reverses its approval of the plan at the last minute, meaning there may be no tickets waiting for the Americans when they arrive at the airport when in fact it was the Canadians who purchased the plane tickets in advance.
Oddly enough, one of the most improbable scenes – the teams of carpet weavers that the Iranian government put to work repairing shredded documents – is something that actually did happen.
Next, the question of Tony Mendez. First of all, Tony Mendez is Mexican. Ben Affleck is not. However, Tony Mendez is white (and of Italian/Irish ancestry). Ben Affleck is also white. So there you go. Second, his background story in Argo is also fictional but nevertheless it is Hollywood friendly. For dramatic purposes, of course. In Argo, Mendez is separated, he lives alone, has one son who lives away from his dad. Their relationship is long distance, mostly involving long phone calls (which is how he gets the idea of a fake movie in the first place). They connect over their mutual love for SF movies. In reality Mendez was not separated from his wife (at the time) and he has two sons and a daughter, instead of a one son. Also, the character of Hollywood producer portrayed by Alan Arkin (my favorite character of the movie) is a fictional character. This is a bit ironic since the character is presented as the embodiment of Hollywood bullshit. The character of John Goodman, makeup artist Chambers is on the other hand real (he is the one who designed the wonderful Volcan ears for Mister Spock). Speaking of inconsistencies here are few more: the Hollywood sign is shown damaged as it had been in the past, but it had actually been repaired in 1978, prior to the events described in the film; Ewoks came into the existence four year after the events of Argo took place; Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had been Shah since 1941 and not 1953 as Argo claims. So why do I like this film?
There are few reasons for this. First, it is very important to say that Argo is not about Iranian hostage situation, it is not about the revolution, it is not about Iran’s history, it is not about American history either. Argo is about Argo. Argo is about creation of a fake movie so the 6 stranded people who found themselves in a hostile environment would be rescued. To my mind it doesn’t matter that these 6 people are Americans or that the hostile environment is in fact Iran. What matters is that this actually happened and that in real life six lives were saved by the means of film, literally. Only an idea crazy as this can actually be a successful idea. And the audience of Argo is taken on to a journey of discovery as to how this idea came about. The story itself is interesting but the film also delivers it. Not for once is this film boring. And once we have agreed that half of it is not real but in fact fabricated (for dramatic purposes) we have also reached the second reason – the reflexive aspect of it. I was constantly aware of the fact that I am watching a movie. For the entire duration of Argo, Affleck kept reminding me of this – through Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Burbank Studio, award ceremonies, storyboards, costumes, make up and in the last instance, the Argo itself. Third reason is the prolog: a history of pre-revolutionary Iran told through storyboards. The sequence tells a story of how the CIA’s meddling with Iran’s government over three decades led to a corrupt and oppressive regime, eventually inciting the 1979 revolution. The sequence humanizes the Iranian people portraying them as victims of these abuses. Kevin B. Lee argues how “this opening may very well be the reason why critics have given the film credit for being insightful and progressive—because nothing that follows comes close, and the rest of the movie actually undoes what this opening achieves.” I disagree. The Iranian hostage crises was part of a larger movement known as the Iranian Revolution or Islamic Revolution involving the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and its replacement with an Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution. So needless to say, the country was in chaos. The fact that we were following the group of 6 people for whom the fake-film-scam Argo was created in the first place inevitably implies that we are about to look at the Iranian world (at the time) through their eyes, and through their eyes only. These people were scared for their lives so the gravity of the situation needed to be exemplified. Kevin B. Lee (among others) complained how Affleck portrayed Iranians as “a raging, zombie-like horde.” Once again, I cannot agree with this. Iranians were portrayed as people who got tired of American involvement in their own issues; people who went out on the streets, fighting for better tomorrow. There is nothing pretty about it. It is simple as that – there is nothing pretty about a revolution, any revolution. Another complaint comes in regards to Iranians being only a vague backdrop of the film. This is very confusing, how can they be a raging zombie-like horde and a vague backdrop at the same time? They can either be very strong or very vague. I personally agree with the vague because, and to repeat myself once again, they are not the focus of the film. The focus of Argo is a fake film and the escape of the group of 6. The Iranians they come across on their journey are Reza, the Iranian culture contact for ‘Canadian film crew’, Sahar, the Iranian girl who works for the Canadian ambassador, the crowd at the bazar and the revolutionaries. Reza and Sahar are portrayed as wonderful human beings who on separate, multiple occasions help this group of 6, the crowd acts like any crowd be it the Iranian crowd during the revolution, the Dutch crowd during the Queensday, Serbian crowd in a church during the Christmas or London crowd during the Boxing day. And revolutionaries, well, they are people, with guns who are fighting the regime. What could have Affleck done to portray them better? To give them flowers instead of guns; to dress them the way Tarantino dressed Django, in bright colors; make them smile more…what?
At the end of his article Kevin L. Bee says how:
“Late in the movie, Affleck’s CIA agent dazzles Iranian soldiers at a checkpoint with storyboards from his fake sci-fi production. The scene plays into the hoary sentiment uttered at every Academy Awards ceremony, one surely to be repeated with each Oscar Argo wins: People across the world are movie fans at heart. But like Oscar night, the scene is really a reflection of Hollywood’s hubris in trumpeting its own power. This moment, of course, is more bullshit, a self-serving fantasy concocted by the screenwriter. But it reminds us of Argo’s opening sequence, when it was us dazzled into submission by a series of storyboards. A razzle-dazzle con job worthy of its CIA subject, Argo thinks of you just like it thinks of those buffoonish Iranian soldiers: too easily impressed with a flimsy fabrication to see beyond it.”
This is missing the point. Ben Affleck is playing with the idea of Reganite cinema that is about to embark upon the film world and all of us, whose trademark is precisely the Star Wars. You have to have in mind that on a political level, the end of the 1970s with the Iranian Hostage Crisis, among other things, was purely handled by Carter and therefor used against him in the 1980 campaign by Ronal Reagan, a right-wing former actor, who was inaugurated as president in January 1980. Reagan’s message was that America has indulged in enough self-criticism of the former decade (mainly as a result of the Vietnam war and the Watergate), that the country was in fact a noble one and that the generation of the 1960s had been mistaken. The pessimism and self-destruction of the 1970s was replaced with a decade of new optimism embodied in vivid dream-like narratives of good prevailing over evil. And this is what, not just this scene, but the entire movie, is alluding to. And if they were the true zombie-like horde, as Bee argues, they would not think twice before killing the Americans right there at the airport, let alone take time to check out if their story really pans out. So call me an ignorant or even naive, but people across the world are all more or less the same, given the right circumstances…and Argo is a highly entertaining Hollywood film.
text written by: Monika Ponjavic