Ben Affleck’s third feature film as director is based on what has become known as the Canadian Caper, an incident which occurred during the 444 day long hostage situation after the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979. Six American diplomats who escaped from the embassy hid in the house of the Canadian ambassador and were in great danger of being discovered. The Canadians and the USA Central Intelligence Agency worked together to smuggle the diplomats out of Iran using an elaborate cover story about them being a film crew scouting locations in Tehran for a B-grade science-fiction film titled Argo. While the cover story came under intense scrutiny by the Iranian militants it was designed to deceive, Affleck’s film will no doubt be scrutinised for its portrayal of sensitive events that occurred between countries that still have a precarious relationship. Affleck’s film takes dramatic license with the events to focus predominantly on the CIA’s involvement, in particular the work done by disguise and extraction expert Tony Mendez, whom Affleck also portrays. The resulting film may be based more on the ‘spirit’ of the operation rather than the hard facts, but it successfully manages to be respectful about the turbulent events and function as an exciting Hollywood spy thriller.
Films about Americans in peril while overseas have a disreputable history of diluting all complexity and factual detail for the sake of a formulaic action or thriller scenario. At their worst they are so reductive in the presentation of the issues that they become hyper-conservative and xenophobic works that demonise non-American people and cultures, for example the repugnant Taken films. With Argo Affleck has demonstrated that even when some of the facts have been embellished for dramatic license, it is still possible to make a genre film based on a real Americans in peril incident without resorting to crude nationalism or racism.
Firstly, Argo begins with a terrific summary of the historical background to the US embassy takeover and resulting hostage crisis in order to put the anti-US sentiment from the Iranian Revolutionaries into perspective. The crash-course history lesson establishes how much and how long the US had interfered with Iranian politics out of self interest and how much harm this had done to the Iranian people. So when Affleck shows the audience the shots of the angry Iranians, it is understood where their anger is coming from, which suits the drama of the film since this makes their actions even more terrifying. The contrast between the writhing and yelling bodies filling the streets outside the US embassy gates and the still, empty space inside the embassy grounds is beautifully established by a series of aerial shots. When the revolutionaries break through the gate and swarm towards the embassy buildings, Affleck generates tremendous tension as the embassy workers fight against time to destroy documents and prepare to be confronted by the angry crowd.
The second thing that Argo does so well in terms of representation is continuously remind the audience that the various Iranian militant organisations and individuals who took over the city did not represent all Iranian people. In fact, moderate and impartial members of the Iranian population suffered far more and in far greater numbers than any of the American hostages and Argo doesn’t shy away from portraying this. Nor does it shy away from portraying the very ugly anti-Iranian sentiment from within America to remind the audience of how often entire populations, cultures and religions are unreasonably blamed for the atrocities and crimes committed by their most extremist factions.
While the attempt to present historical context and avoid stereotypes is impressive, these are not elements at the forefront of the film, just impressive details designed to facilitate a suspenseful thriller. In terms of narrative structure Argo is essentially a standard genre film that also happens to be extremely well made. After the tense opening sequence, Affleck takes the film into calmer territory as the focus shifts to America where the bizarre plan, described as ‘the best worst idea’ available, is devised. Affleck is effective as Mendez, whom the film portrays as world-weary and close to hitting rock bottom, to make the character a romantic ideal of a broken man with one last shot at doing something meaningful. When John Goodman as make-up artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin as Hollywood producer Lester Siegel enter the film, a pleasing shift in tone occurs and Argo makes great use of humour to breakup the mood when required. Gags about Hollywood being just as covert and sneaky as espionage may be obvious and easy, but Goodman and Arkin riff so enjoyably that it doesn’t matter. And while at times Argo resembles a reverse Wag the Dog, it never lets the audience forget that a very dangerous and very serious situation underpins everything going on.
The final portion of the film, where the plan is put into action, contains an almost unbearable series of tense moments that are exploited for all they are worth in the best possible way. There is a moment where the cliché of a vehicle that inconveniently won’t start is used; bringing the film dangerously close to breaking its spell, but otherwise Argo keeps the viewer hooked. Affleck very skilfully establishes the characters, the scenario and what is at stake so that the tension is sustained throughout the lengthy finale, making the experience a highly rewarding endurance test. Argo is an excellent thriller, displaying genre filmmaking at its best. It’s refusal to compromise any integrity when it comes to portraying the people involved and the political context makes it all the stronger and should provide a useful benchmark for other films based on true events.