I have advice for potential viewers of Argo, Ben Affleck’s new political thriller and third directing project: Come early, stay late. The first five minutes of the movie are a crash course in Iranian history — a visually stunning combination of comic strip animation and authentic newsreel footage assembled by Kyle Cooper of Prologue Pictures. The sequence takes us through the 1953 CIA-backed coup, the rise of the Ayatollah and up to the relevant moment: November 4, 1979 — the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in protest of the U.S.-granted asylum of the deposed Shah. The film is followed by a shot-by-shot comparison of the movie to real-life hostages and 1980’s Iran, an homage to just how fully emerging director Affleck has dedicated himself to authenticity.
The story is a true one, declassified by President Clinton in 1997. During the November 4 raid, six Americans escaped from the embassy and found refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Inspired by watching Planet of the Apes with his young son, CIA operations officer Tony Mendez (Affleck) proposes the CIA’s “best bad idea” for rescuing them — pretend that they are the film crew of a fake sci-fi movie. They’ll need a script, a big-name producer, promotions, fake identities: everything. It’s a story almost too Hollywood to believe that it’s real and Affleck cashes in on this, contrasting scenes of characteristic schmoozing and hypocrisy in 1970’s Hollywood with the increasing tension in Tehran. Mendez’s production team for the project consists of real-life make-up artist John Chambers (a never-better John Goodman) and the composite character of Lester Siegel, a has-been sci-fi producer (the bitingly funny Alan Arkin). This duo provides much of the film’s levity; Arkin wins most of the movie’s best comedic lines. When tailed around a schmaltzy Hollywood party by a reporter wondering about the origins of the script’s title, he responds: “It doesn’t mean anything. It means Argo-fuck yourself.” The humor in this movie is far from tasteful, but as the authentic Nightline footage and dramatized arguments of the hostages remind us, these people are hardly in a position that prioritizes decorum.Subplots are handled deftly. Affleck successfully coordinates the movie’s 120 speaking parts and half-dozen settings. Though the cast is saturated with stars, the six American diplomats collectively known as “the Houseguests,” are played by talented actors with unfamiliar faces (Clea Duvall, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé.) The casting choice seems deliberate and Affleck takes a step back, leaving much of the spotlight to the story. The tension within the ambassador’s house and between the Houseguests is created with visual precision — tight space, shallow depth of field and a permanent haze of cigarette smoke.
Exhibiting sensitivity to time-period aesthetics, Affleck and editor William Goldenberg imitate the fast-paced shots and frequent cross-cutting of 1970’s political dramas, specifically citing Alan Paluka’s All the President’s Men for scenes inside CIA headquarters. Argo is created with painstaking historical detail — from the costuming, to the office electronics, to the grainy images used by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. This movie is something out of the past: a smart, complicated narrative that doesn’t lean on high production-value action sequences and leaves the meaningful glances, ticking clocks and visible perspiration for another day, a different drama. Affleck’s understanding of exactly what is required to make a historical drama work is clear: He knows the story must have humor and suspense to sell tickets, but he never loses his grasp on the fact that what we are looking at is history. The stark mixture cuts to the quick with scenes of an execution in the basement of the U.S. embassy and an American sympathizer hung from a construction crane, angry Americans burning a Iranian flag and a mob-beating of an Iranian-American man.
These aren’t pretty pictures. Argo isn’t interested in being a pretty picture — it won’t create heroes that don’t exist. Siegel declares history a “farce that turns into tragedy,” but as Chambers accurately points out, the quote is actually the other way around. Argo is neither, though it points out the truth in both. Where Hollywood gets involved, reality is often glossed over for fiction, resulting in farce and where two nations fail to communicate, loss of human life can be the tragic cost. Arkin’s wise-cracking aphorisms and Affleck’s deliberate symbolism can be a bit heavy-handed at times, as are the carefully-calculated interior conflicts personified by the loyalty-divided Iranian maid Sahar (Vrand), the perpetually-skeptical hostage Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) and the responsibility-burdened CIA officer Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) and Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan (Kyle Chandler). But in a film that could have so easily collapsed under the weight of its context and gravity, Affleck handles his task with surprising skill.
Movies about failed diplomacy and misguided patriotism under the not-always-snowy-white banner of “protecting American lives” are becoming standard fare in a post-9/11 world. Watching the trailer of Zero Dark Thirty, what seems to be a similarly-intended thriller billed as “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man,” I am nervous. Argo handled the issues of U.S. involvement in the Middle East by attributing blame to failures on the part of both countries, and by giving credit where credit was due — to the bravery and intelligence of individuals, rather than the superiority of a government or nation. It is smart story-telling that makes this historical narrative worth-watching, and I hope that director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) is prepared to handle the subject matter with care. Argo has proven that when it comes to moments in a controversial history, the truth can be stranger than fiction, and as is all-too-clear looking at the past half-century of Middle East-U.S. relations, it’s our misunderstandings that destroy us — it’s fiction that can be more damaging than the truth.