True Hollywood Story: Argo

Based,” the trailer tells us, “on a declassified true story,” Ben Affleck’s third film as director is a political thriller that dramatises part of the Iran hostage crisis. In November of 1979, 52 US diplomats, following a takeover and occupation of the American embassy, were held in Tehran for a total of 444 days. They were released the day after Ronald Reagan took office; Jimmy Carter’s handling of the affair had cost him re-election. In particular, Affleck’s film recounts an operation known as the “Canadian Caper”: the ‘exfiltration,’ in government lingo, of six of the diplomats who, having evaded capture, were holed up at the Canadian ambassador’s residence. The CIA’s plan to rescue the hostages involved Tony Mendez (Affleck) entering the country pretending to be a film producer, and leaving with the hostages as his fake crew.

The fake movie for which they were ostensibly scouting locations was a piece of sci-fi fluff—a Star Wars knock-off—called Argo. In support of its artificiality, notices were placed in Variety; a poster was drawn up; a real cast was assembled, costumes were created, and a disused office on a studio back-lot functioned, with the addition of a few phone-lines, as a fake headquarters for the film’s non-existent production company. This is the stuff movies are made of, and Affleck has made a fairly enjoyable one here. There are some thrilling sequences, especially at the start, and the fake movie-within-the-movie allows Affleck to have a lot of fun at Hollywood’s expense. The film’s extensive supporting cast is superb. Headed by John Goodman and Alan Arkin (who should be recognised by the Academy for his performance) as wise-cracking movie producers, it includes Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Philip Baker Hall, Richard Kind, Clea DuVall, Chris Messina, and the excellent Scoot McNairy—the last of whom also appears in Andrew Dominik’s superbly taut crime-thriller Killing Them Softly, now on release.

In an Interview magazine conversation with Gus van Sant pegged to the release of Argo, Affleck cites a raft of ’70s movies as visual, stylistic, and tonal inspiration: Hal Ashby’s Being There; Kramer vs. Kramer; Ordinary People; Scorsese’s Raging Bull; Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The two that are most informative as touchstones, to my mind, though, are Alan J. Pakula’s landmark conspiracy-thriller All the President’s Men (1975), and Costa-Gavras’ Missing (1982). The latter is mentioned as being fodder for getting Iran “right,” essentially—but the sun-baked Hollywood sheen of Argo, its grainy look and its sub-Sorkin walk-and-talks, are at odds with the dusty, soft-focus tension of Costa-Gavras’ film, which artfully builds tension. Argo, by contrast, opens with a glass-shattering raid, and features far too many scenes of overly self-important people barking orders at no one in particular.

Writer-director Andrew Dominik moved the action of Killing Them Softly from the mid-1970s (when the novel upon which it is based was written), to election night, 2008. Presidential oratory (from the incumbent, and, more emphatically, from the President-elect) courses through the film by way of radio and television broadcasts. (The time-shift even occasioned dialogue additions: characters comment on notions of ‘hope’ and ‘change.’) Pakula, in All the President’s Men, worked in a similar manner: from its opening news-video footage of Nixon’s second State of the Union address to its closing freeze-frame, his masterpiece—surely the best movie about investigative reporting ever made—thrillingly recounts history. Argo recounts history, too, but it messes with too many recorded details, and is too excitable—too attracted to propulsive set-pieces—to portray any lived-in sense of time or place the way the aforementioned do.

Argo, in fact, oozes style—and it probably has a bit too much of it. In A Serious Man (2008), the Coen brothers ‘did’ the ’60s exceptionally well. David Fincher filled his 2007 film Zodiac with an overt but never ostentatious design. Neither film was subtle, but neither was as overblown, visually, as Affleck’s. In a recent Harper’s article, “Why I’m not in love with Don Draper,” the essayist Jenny Diski chides Mad Men for what she sees as “a curious authenticity that screams at you with its excessiveness.” “Everything is so carefully of its time,” she writes, “in a way that things during actual times are not.” I don’t quite agree with her opinion of Matthew Weiner’s (sublime) show, but her argument, applied to Argo, is informative: Affleck’s over-reliance on costuming and the work of the hair-and-make-up department as stand-ins for other era-markers (dialogue, say, or carefully placed newspaper front-pages) diverts attention from the story’s human elements, and, ultimately, from the film’s action. There’s nothing flashy or artful about Affleck’s work here—none, even, of the occasional showiness of his prior films, especially his début—but there is one dazzling parallel-editing sequence: late in the piece, a dress-rehearsal table-read of the script is deftly cross-cut with a scene of the diplomats-as-film-crew surveying an underground bazaar as a possible shooting location.

Previously, Affleck co-wrote his own films: with Aaron Stockard, he adapted Gone Baby Gone (2007) from Denis Lahane’s novel; the script for The Town (2010), written with Stockard and Peter Craig, came from Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves. Argo is not from Affleck’s writing; Chris Terrio—whose own directorial début, 2005’s Heights, is worth a watch—wrote Argo from a 2007 wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman, “Escape from Tehran.” (That article is well worth reading before watching the film.) “The movie was fake. The mission was real,” reads the film’s tagline. Its storyboard-like documentary opening—which lays out the region’s political landscape over the preceding half-century through voice-over commentary from a softly spoken woman—is somewhat reminiscent, I think, of Marjane Satrapi’s animated film Persepolis (2007). Further emphasising the true-story nature of its tale, Argo concludes with audio clips from a speech by President Carter after the hostages had been safely returned to the US, and matches photographs of the real hostages with shots of the actors who played them.

Despite these attempts at maintaining a veneer of fidelity to historical events, Affleck’s film takes liberties. Near the start of the film, Bryan Cranston’s character, a CIA agent, says that “the Kiwis”—meaning our diplomatic staff in the country—“refused” to shelter the hostages. This isn’t true, as the New Zealand Herald reported last week; our role was more significant and our communications more complex than a swift brush-off. Perhaps more problematic than this omission, which, in fairness, could have been simple oversight during the writing process, is the film’s trumped-up ending: it’s a, tense, edge of your seat thrill-ride—but it didn’t happen that way at all. Its historical inaccuracies don’t render Argo unenjoyable, exactly, but you get a sense that a lot of what you’re seeing is trumped-up.

The brashness of Argo is perhaps exemplified by an establishing shot of the “Hollywood” sign. At the end of a decade in which tinsel-town was, basically, in a slump, the sign was dilapidated and broken. Affleck chooses, at film’s end, after the succession of character-and-actual-person comparisons, to show us a photo of the sign as it really was—just in case we thought he’d made it up. This commitment to authenticity is admirable, but was it necessary—especially in light of a script crammed with fudged facts and a faked conclusion?

Argo aims to be a send-up of Hollywood as well as an exciting tale of (mostly) true espionage. It achieves both halves, and this careful balance is due as much to Terrio’s writing as it is Affleck’s reliable direction. With each new film, Affleck is proving himself more dependable—a maker of solid, sturdy, very Hollywood movies. It’s a pity so much of his new film is artifice and superficiality, when the real story wasn’t that much less exciting.