The Most Beautiful Fraud: Argo
The whole evening had a distinctively ’70s flair about it: we drove out to Shoreline, a northern suburb of Seattle, to the Crest Cinema Center to see my first movie since relocating to the Pacific Northwest. The Crest was built in 1949, and seems quite specifically stuck in time, the kind of old neighborhood theatre that’s been out of vogue since Nixon was in office; it doesn’t even look like a movie house so much as it does a converted elementary school that someone decided to start showing second-run movies in.
That’s entirely in keeping with the tone of the movie we saw there: Ben Affleck’s 2012 Best Picture winner, Argo. The story of a far-fetched attempt by the CIA and other intelligence agencies to rescue six American diplomatic staffers from Tehran during the 1980 hostage crisis, Argo is soaked in period detail; while a few of them are inaccurate (the Hollywood sign had been repaired two years prior, for instance), everything from the suits and the cars to the facial hairs and the corporate logos are presented with just the right amount of blanched-out nostalgia. Affleck’s direction isn’t particularly distinctive — he does a creditable job behind the camera, but people complaining that he was “robbed” of a Best Director nod must have watched a different movie than I did — but his decision to film Argo in washed, flat color filters gives it just the decaying, latter-days-of-disco look that it needs to portray an America where the chickens of 35 years of disastrously arrogant foreign policy are finally coming home to roost.
Much has been made of the movie’s attempt to play fast and loose with the historical context of the operation. I wasn’t too dissatisfied on that count; a voice-over narration at the beginning places the blame for the Islamic revolution squarely where it belongs, on the meddling forces of imperialism and the very CIA it later valorizes. Argo is, after all, an American film for American audiences about the rescue of Americans by Americans, and it wasn’t going to win much popular or critical praise by focusing on what colossal assholes the Dulles Brothers were. What was a bit more troubling was the utterly generic way the Iranian people were portrayed. The only one ever given a name is a conflicted would-be turncoat; the rest are all angry, agitated lunatics or faceless background nobodies. While the CIA functionaries trying to extract the American workers are given personalities and distinct characters, and are portrayed by top-notch character actors like Philip Baker Hall, Titus Welliver and Chris Messina, their Iranian counterparts are unnamed cyphers played by other unnamed cyphers; not only do they not have motivations or characteristics, they aren’t even spared a subtitle. Their main job is running around and shouting.
This they do in aid of the movie’s curious evocation of suspense. It’s tricky to generate thrills in a thriller where anyone with the appropriate historical knowledge already knows that everyone got out safely and no one was so much as hurt; the stakes seem particularly low in Argo, which after a while turns into the story of the world’s tensest boarding procedure. (It doesn’t help that almost all of the movie’s actual confrontations, from an angry shouting match in Tehran’s main bazaar to a manic chase scene between armed military police vehicles and a passenger jetliner, were completely invented for the movie.) That said, Argo does manage to brew up some armrest-squeezing tension out of these scenes, which is a formal accomplishment of sorts, developing something out of nothing and turning a low-stakes story into a nail-biter. However, when the reality of the situation sets in, and you realize that none of these people were ever actually in any real danger, the triumphalism at the end, with the victorious control-room hugs, the earnest expressions of faith and trust and relief, and the overbearingly manipulative score by Howard Shore wannabe Alexandre Desplat, really seems excessive.
The acting in Argo is sometimes difficult to come to terms with. There isn’t much to the film’s flawed-hero-seeks-redemption lead role; someone like a younger Clint Eastwood could have made it intense, but Affleck just looks bored, and turns one ‘I could have done more!’ scene into the movie’s biggest laugher. The ‘Houseguests’ are all competent enough, but don’t really have much to do; most of the best performances belong to the CIA operatives, who, thankfully, are all portrayed by fine, weathered character actors who avoid the kind of showboating done by Alan Arkin and John Goodman in their stunt roles. (There’s also a terrifically intense portrayal near the end by an actor playing one of the Revolutionary Guard, but it’s impossible to tell from the credits who he was, since, of course, he is never solidly identified.) The acting isn’t natural enough to be effortless or spectacular enough to really call attention to itself, but I suppose that’s a kind of compliment.
Like a lot of CIA operations of the 1970s — like a lot of the 1970s, period — it’s hard to make much sense out of Argo. Like the operation that inspired it, it was successful on its own terms, technically proficient, and carried out with professionalism and a certain degree of flair; and it seems ungracious to criticize it for its context. But then again, what did it all mean? Given how low the bar was set, was it really necessary? Argo winning Best Picture would be unthinkable in a year with really strong competition, but that’s 2012 for you. The fake movie Affleck’s team ‘produced’ in order to carry out their goals was a wash, an unproduced chum-bucket of a Star Wars rip-off, based on the work of men with real talent but quickly passed into the hands of hacks and eventually used as something no more artistically ambitious than a cover story. Affleck’s actual movie was far better than than, and it succeeded in an admirable if unfocused way in turning its fifteen cents worth of story into a dollar’s worth of plot, but its highs were too much like its lows to deserve the mantle of greatness.