Argo (2012, Ben Affleck)
Stating the obvious, Argo isn’t an historical document. It’s not even one to the degree that the hyper-stylized and formally audacious Schindler’s List is, which is an important point because both films zero in on scarcely remembered, somewhat ironic sidelines to a larger earth-shaking story. In this case, director Ben Affleck throws us in the deep end of the beginning of the hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. He’s got conviction about this, too, matching documentary footage with carefully aligned new material almost seamlessly, blanketing us in period detail and harrowing tension as he meticulously follows the will and the desperation that led six of the American occupants of the building to escape, almost inadvertently, and hide out. Argo takes pains to recognize the seriousness of the hostage crisis but that’s not the crux of its story — we spend most of the narrative firmly outside of the embassy — so much as a wedge to break us out of the spell Affleck has cast. Because this is a film about being immersed, about being lost in a screen, and more than anything about the strange blending and divergence of reality and cinema.
In other words, although this film isn’t the worst primer on the substance of the Carter-era crisis that could exist, it’s rather close in terms of its liberal bonking around with facts and deft revision of chronologies. But it feels real, and to some extent that’s the point. This is a movie about movies, in both a literal and a deeper sense; it’s one of the most cleverly self-reflexive thrillers since Cary Grant leapt around on Lincoln’s nose, and in the must illustrious traditions, Affleck owns the conscious Hollywood pulp of it all while never once underselling the emotions dredged up by the story. It’s an apolitical film, to the extent it even considers such things, and Affleck himself would astutely point out that the essential core of its story could occur anywhere and anytime, however implausibly. So when you learn that its most seemingly ridiculous elements are factual, that’s when you understand the depth of the opportunity the director felt he had with this project. And he runs with it.
Argo is the name of Affleck’s film but it’s also the name of a nonexistent sci-fi film that was used as a cover story to recover the six escapees in Iran, holed up in the attic of the Canadian ambassador. In order to make the story entirely convincing, Variety puff pieces were set up, auditions were held, makeup tests were done, an entire crew was fabricated. This is all true, by the way; on seeing Argo, the 2012 Hollywood picture that is actually real, you may feel some regret that the comic possibility of actually visualizing scenes from this plainly cornball Star Wars knockoff script is never explored. In other words, you don’t get to see Argo — but that’s just it! The grand secret of Affleck’s big parlor trick is that the fake film that literally rescues and recovers a half dozen would-be hostages is the one you’re watching, which as time goes on becomes so blatantly a big lavish movie spectacle, a gigantic comment upon itself, that the metaphor is irresistible — a bravura climax on multiple levels that provides for the universal hit to the jugular that all great thrillers should bring us but that also dares to coyly summarize the liveliness and surrealism of cinema itself. There are even scenes of cranky producers complaining about the project, chaotic location scouting sessions, comedic infighting, a meeting about storyboards, a wildly over the top and breathless chase scene too completely ridiculous not to be a fabrication and too intense and beautifully put together not to brace you anyway, and a big sappy kissing scene with an American flag blowing in the wind. It’s the movie to end all movies, the rare satire that enters the mainstream U.S. consciousness and works, and the rarer satire that doesn’t cop to insincerity or condescension. Affleck loves this subject matter, but he also sees its potential as a brave and unusual meditation on American media’s relationship to the rest of the world, and to American existence in and of itself.
Affleck assumes you’re a seasoned viewer of films, especially thrillers; Argo is explicitly reliant upon the viewer’s knowledge of the way movies work. That doesn’t mean it fails to carry an air of real authenticity; it’s not so meta that its pleasures are limited to its subtext. Quite the opposite, in fact. Read it on surface level and it’s still an immensely enjoyable, well-crafted, and intriguing piece of work. It gets just right the tension of a thriller enlivened by its relationship to history, in the unmistakable tradition of All the President’s Men, The Insider, and Quiz Show, on down to Zodiac and Breach. The sense of place and time is bracing in its detail, right down to the Saul Bass ’70s Warner Bros. logo at the beginning (which, again, points up the essence of the movie’s own fixation with its medium), and the performances are uniformly excellent. Affleck himself is somewhat oddly stunt-casted as CIA agent Tony Mendez, the chief operative of the Argo operation, but his supporting cast redeems this indulgence. As the six wayward State Department employees stuck in Iran, Tate Donovan, Christopher Denham, Scott McNairy, Kerry Bishé, Rory Cochrane, and a nearly unrecognizable Clea DuVall each define and humanize their characters with stunning rapidity, enlivening what could have been screenwriterly shorthand. Without occupying a great amount of screen time, the two married couples in particular (the Lijeks and the Staffords) deliver their own small dramas that play out completely against the larger narrative, all with a sort of economy rarely seen in an American thriller.
The parallel story in Hollywood, meanwhile, is a fascinating contrast — casual, cynical, seasoned in the manner of some interlude from an Elmore Leonard book, the savvy veteran producer depicted here by Alan Arkin as well as makeup artist John Chambers, a calmly exuberant as ever John Goodman, represent the seen-it-all bullheadedness of the Hollywood establishment, who are so perpetually unimpressed by everything that even this impact upon a world news event is treated with blasé nonchalance! This if anything lends the Argo mission much of its credibility, right down to the hilarious climactic scene in which Arkin and Goodman are unable to walk across the street to answer a telephone call because another movie’s shooting is in progress. They walk and don’t run back to their office and rather casually put an end to the tension. The more explicit jabs at the Business in the script are clever enough in context, but this subtler one in which nothing can keep arrogant movie people away from having a drink, and nothing in the universe is more important to other arrogant movie people than whether or not a stupid fight scene gets finished, kind of says a good deal more.
Affleck could easily have made this a straightforward film and it would’ve been just fine. How wonderful that he chose instead to render Argo an oddball glance of something real, but also something he unabashedly plays with. It comes to a head with the tonally courageous, multilayered nature of the final act — which deftly blends actual real-world danger, taken entirely seriously, with a levity and brazen movie-magic breathlessness that’s nothing short of remarkable. It’s rare that a film can make fun of itself and its entire premise while completely holding you in its grip; you’re never unaware that you’re watching a film, because that’s the point, but you’re completely steeped in it anyway. That’s the mark of a brilliantly crafted and true thriller, the likes of which we so seldom see today. Savor this one; of the likely contenders, though I’m well aware it will not win, this is almost certainly my personal vote for the Oscar.
[Preliminary version of review; screencaps will be updated after DVD release.]