ARGO: The Hollywood Machine

Who’d have thought that Argo, a political thriller about the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, would turn out to be the most quintessentially “Hollywood” film of the year.

It is a story that most American’s know, and remember, vividly: In 1979, the U.S. Embassy was besieged by a group of 500 strong Iranian Revolutionaries in protest of America’s support of Mohammed Reza, Iran’s deposed Shah. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for a shocking 444 days. Six American diplomats escaped the coup, and were ushered into underground sanctuary by the Canadian embassy. The question, obviously, was how the hell to get them out of the country.

Enter Ben Affleck.

No, seriously. Enter Ben Affleck … the director.

Let’s face it, Affleck doesn’t exactly exude Shakespeare. In front of the camera. (Even in Argo, in which he is solid, he is overshadowed by his scene-stealing co-stars.)  But. Behind the camera? Ahhh, well. There’s the marvelous revelation, first apparent with his 2007 drama Gone Baby Gone, and full bloom here in Argo. Ben Affleck is one hell of a director.

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Argo is a taught, white-knuckled political thriller a la Hitchcock. Hitch’s fingerprints are in fact all over this film: There’s the wrong man (in this case men, the six diplomats in the wrong place at the wrong time); the artful decision to favor suspense over shock  (there is actually very little violence in a film that feels very violent); and an absolutely kick ass MacGuffin. OK, it’s not really a MacGuffun to us, but to the Iranian government it is: Argo. A science fiction action film being produced by a Canadian studio, scouting possible film locations in Iran. And, in the spirit of Hitchcock, the drama is blended, irresistibly, with a solid resolve to not take itself seriously. It recognizes and fully embraces the complete absurdity of the situation (much like Hitch does with North by Northwest). Nor does it take Hollywood seriously (indeed, Hollywood of the late 70s serves as comic relief), but what is taken seriously is the fact that, as much as we’ like to believe otherwise, Hollywood can, when the climate is just right, be *the* most powerful player in politics. After all, both are dependent upon smoke and mirror wizardry.

How to get the six American diplomats out of the country alive? With their options going from bad to worse, the situation becoming all the more impossible with every tick of the clock, CIA specialist and consultant Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in and comes up with what his supervisor (Brian Cranston) calls the best of the worst options. The idea, which Affleck supposedly gets from his science-fiction obsessed son, is to enter Iran under the pretense of scouting film locations for a big-budget science fiction fantasy film, provide the six American with Canadian passports and identities as members of the film crew, and then leave the country under the Canadian production team guise. The Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) harbors them at his home, and the interior scenes grow progressively tense. Can we trust the housekeeper who knows the secret identity of the Ambassadors “guests”? Can we trust the diplomats themselves to not do something very, very, very stupid and blow their cover? One thing is clear: time is not on their side. The film relies heavily on original news footage from the Iranian hostage crisis to drive home the immediacy and urgency of the situation: the riots and street demonstrations are often real footage. (Jimmy Carter, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Ted Kopple all get ample screen time.)

This tactic allows Argo to slide effortlessly right into our perception of ‘now’ which, leisure suits and rimless specs notwithstanding, (The Hollywood Reporter has published an entire piece on Argo’s 1970s eyewear) makes it feel less period (God, can 1979 really be ‘period’?) and quite modern. After all, what could possibly be more current a topic than  political unrest in the Middle East and strained relations between the U.S. and Iran?

 

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Enter Makeup artist John Chambers (a top notch John Goodman), best known for his work on Planet of the Apes, who has done jobs for the CIA in the past, and is therefore recruited by Affleck.  When presented with Affleck’s insane proposal, Goodman brings in Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, firing on all six cylinders here). Not what you’d call a power producer, he’s seen better days, Siegel has the chutzpah to take on the most ridiculous job of his career: blitzing Hollywood with press junkets, full page ads in the Trades, and planted publicity for a film that will never be made. It is of course, as Arkin says with flawless sarcasm, exactly what Hollywood does best. What they find is an outrageous script called “Argo”: A story so awful, it’s perfect.

What happens next is classic Hollywood filmmaking. Affleck is in complete command of this film, his choices are sharp and deliberate, managing to keep what is in essence quite  formulaic, charged with energy. In this respect, the film also hearkens back to Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (swapping out Washington D.C. with Hollywood) as this  is a historic event we’re familiar with and know the outcome of, but for 90 minutes we find ourselves … not so sure.  That unusual, edge-of-the-seat energy is sustained right down to the final minute.

All that said, however, Argo isn’t without its faults. I don’t know enough about the Tony Mendez story to be an authority on the situation, but the script smells of shameless creative license (I know, hence the ‘based on true events’, but it’s scarcely believable that the final exciting climax on the tarmac actually happened. (If it had, this would have been a movie decades ago.) And one cannot escape the feeling of winky-winky Hollywood ego massaging.

But hey. What do you expect from the Hollywood machine?

Argo is solid, highly entertaining Hollywood fare made for, by, and about Hollywood … which means it should fare quite well this awards season.

Bottom line: Go see it. You’ll have a blast.

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