Argo (review)

What is Argo (what gives Argo its name)? If you didn't figure it out from the trailers (or managed not to see one, or aren't a history buff) Argo is a fake movie staged by the CIA in order to get six Americans out of revolutionary Iran under the pretense of their being Canadian filmmakers only in the country to do location scouting. That's right. A fake movie.

The setup is ripe for some metatheatrical commentary which it pulls off with true style. The opening scene is one of the most impressive I've seen come out of the Hollywood machine in years: cartoon storyboards come to life depicting (accurately, I might add) a brief history of Iran. Another brilliant moment comes when the fake movie producers host a real reading of the fake script with real actors in wonderfully campy costumes crosscut over depictions of the Iranian revolution which caused the problems they're dealing with. My personal favorite involves the two producers being held up from saving the American crew from the Iranian airport security by a director shooting an inane action sequence.

Add to this some incredible classic crosscutting (in the style of The Birth of A Nation) to build and maintain tension. The final escape scene perfectly crosscuts between the Americans escaping and the Iranian police catching up with them.

The problem is that the Birth of A Nation parallels don't end there. While Argo isn't nearly as brutally and openly racist as Birth was, it turns the actual historical victims, the Iranians, into the oppressors of the poor, helpless Americans. I'm no history major, so I'm going to turn it over to Kevin B. Lee of Slate Magazine:

Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran, the film settles into a retrograde “white Americans in peril” storyline. It recasts those oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde, the same dark-faced demons from countless other movies—still a surefire dramatic device for instilling fear in an American audience. After the opening makes a big fuss about how Iranians were victimized for decades, the film marginalizes them from their own story, shunting them into the role of villains. Yet this irony is overshadowed by a larger one: The heroes of the film, the CIA, helped create this mess in the first place. And their triumph is executed through one more ruse at the expense of the ever-dupable Iranians to cap off three decades of deception and manipulation.*

The issue isn't that the film is pro-American. The issue is that it's pro-American at the expense of the truth in recasting the villains as the victims. Is it too much to ask for another Apocalypse Now? Okay, that probably is too much to ask (after all, where would we get a 37 year old Harrison Ford?), but can we at least make sure anyone who wants to make a war movie has seen it? Is it wrong for me to be frustrated when we have two Best Picture nominees about US foreign policy with no perspective from the foreign side of the equation?

To be fair, Argo presents a much more balanced historical portrait than Best Picture competitor Zero Dark Thirty did. In Zero Dark Thirty we get exactly one shot from the perspective of the Pakistanis: a single protest with a single poster saying, "Stop American Terrorism". Argo on the other hand gives us multiple depictions of the Iranian protesters and revolutionaries including televised human rights-based protests. The problem is that after this the Iranians remain the antagonists out to get the poor Americans.

Tony Mendez's personal life also seems somewhat pointlessly tacked on. We learn that he's somewhat estranged from his wife (they're "taking time off") and that he has a 10 year old son. His nightly chat with his son provides the inspiration for the fake Argo movie (they watch Planet of the Apes) which could feasibly have come from anywhere, and his own love of classic sci-fi might have been more appropriate. His relationship with his family also helps to convince one of the six escapees that he means business when just about anything else could have worked. Affleck's reunion with his wife at the end is also unconvincing and pointless (the return of the six escapees is resolution enough). Fortunately this takes up very little of the movie.

Some other interesting missteps include the Hispanic protagonist Tony Mendez being played by Ben Affleck and a curious lack of any independent women (there are three wives, a housekeeper and some hostages). All that said, Argo was incredibly enjoyable and well put together despite its ideological problems.

*Full article here.