I approached Argo with a certain amount of trepidation since it depicted events very close to my own life. (My father was an American diplomat held at the U. S. Embassy in Tehran from 1979-81.)
Turns out I needn’t have worried overly much. After an initial sequence detailing the storming of the embassy, the hostages in the embassy and the “houseguests” (six Americans who managed to escape the grounds and take refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador) are minor characters in a story about how CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) manages to get the houseguests out of the country by creating a cover story that they are a film crew working on a fictitious science-fiction movie.
I started to write “an intricate cover story,” but that’s not really true…and that’s also a big part of Argo‘s problem. Simplicity is probably a good strategy when devising covert operations, but for a movie, particularly one where the outcome is never in doubt, it tends to create large gaps of time and space that need filling.
This is a film that is filled with lots of “what,” “when,” and “where,” a smattering of “who,” and nary a whiff of “why?” By that I don’t mean “why did the Iranians take over the embassy?” That question is addressed in an introductory (and surprisingly “they had it coming”ish) voice-over summary of Iranian history. There’s plenty of historical reconstruction but rarely does the film stop to ponder what any of it means.
“You’re asking us to trust us with your lives,” one houseguest says to Mendez, though the film also makes it clear that they have no real choice, so any psychological threads about how to gain trust are given over to expository preparation for how the extraction will work. “Someone is responsible” Mendez says when informing his superior that he is ignoring a command to abort the mission. That he, too, may be past the point of no return makes the question of motivation moot.
One audience member at the Toronto Film Festival opined that he thought Affleck was brave for poking fun at his own industry, but I don’t see how the film qualifies as self-examination. One of several missed opportunities for a more probing story was that while the film invited superficial comparisons between espionage and film making (they both tell stories) it never probed the comparison to think about the meaning of that work.
The closest it came was in the best scene, where Mendez and film producer Lester Siegel (the incomparable Alan Arkin) discuss their respective alienation from their families. “It’s a bullshit business,” Siegel opines, and one can’t just wash off the stink at the end of the day. There is a point to be explored there, how we make most of the choices that define the kinds of people we are while at work and, perhaps, do it less thoughtfully and self-consciously than we should. That this is supposed to have made a strong impression on Mendez, I take from the way the film concludes by showing him reuniting with his own family. Even so, that ending sure feels at odds with Lester’s speech, suggesting as it does that in the spy business, if not the film business, one can be successful and morally uncompromised.
The crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival cheered whole-heartedly, and Affleck, in introducing the film, admitted to pandering by claiming the film was about a moment in time where America and Canada came together to save lives. There is a much more cynical film dancing around the edges of Argo trying to come out, I think. An Iranian housekeeper who protects her employer has a fate that is noted in the film (and runs counter to Mendez’s assertion that he does not leave “anyone” behind) but not allowed to damper the triumphalist ending. A postscript soundbite from former President Jimmy Carter informing us, with pride, that “we” were able to bring home all the hostages “peacefully” feels a bit like a slight towards the eight military personnel who lost their lives in an aborted rescue mission. The fact that what may be in the best interest of some isn’t always in the best interest of all is implied, but never stated overtly enough to make any of the decisions anything but no-brainers.
One of the more horrible things that happened to the embassy personnel were mock executions, and the film portrays one of these, even though it’s not really part of this story–just another piece of violence on the crowded backdrop. My father, before he passed away, said that one of the thoughts that passed through his mind when going through these staged executions was that my brother, his son, had been murdered execution style as part of a fast-food restaurant robbery a few years previously. There truly is no safe place in this world where guns can make anyone a more immediate and pressing threat than terrorist nations. Argo is an escape film, and a competent one. Perhaps the most sobering reflections it induced were that Iran appears to have not changed too much in the last thirty years–ironically, I just watched Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film this week and it, too, is filled with riots in the streets and a house captive afraid that stepping outside could lead to his own demise–but America certainly has.