At first glance, Argo seems like a decently entertaining movie tailor-made for Oscar: Ben Affleck, a high-profile, left-leaning director makes a movie with an all-star cast about a tumultuous period in U.S.-Iran relations (ring any bells?) about an amazing story that was only declassified during President Clinton’s administration. The brilliance of Argo, however, lies in its unpretentious self-assurance as a Hollywood movie about a fake Hollywood movie.
The plot of Argo is “based on a true story,” which essentially means that Affleck and company took some liberties with the actual events. The untold story of the 1980 Iran Hostage Crisis is that six Americans actually escaped the Tehran embassy before it was overtaken, eventually fleeing to the Canadian embassy. The Iranian military, hiring kids sweatshop style to piece together the U.S. Embassy’s shredded classified documents, eventually discovers that six are missing. Meanwhile, knowing that Iran would discover the six missing at any point, the C.I.A. brainstorms how to get the secret hostages back to the good old U S of A.
Enter Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, who pitches the idea of posing as a fake Canadian film crew and eventually wins over his begrudging coworkers, leading him to collaborate with Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to make a fake movie. Unlike some of his previous douche-y roles, Affleck plays the straight man to Goodman and Arkin’s constant-punchline personalities who provide an unexpected number of laughs and a light heart to an otherwise edge-of-your-seat political thriller.
Argo does a remarkable job of placing the audience in context of the urgency of the situation, from the life-risking actions taken by the Canadian embassy to the ticking time-bomb that is the embassy’s safe haven to the six Americans. We learn just enough about each character’s personal life to care about him or her but not enough for Argo to lose its overall focus. Affleck admitted that he took some liberties with the ending/climax, which I won’t give away, and some have criticized the film for not giving Canada enough credit (shouldn’t Canada be used to this by now?). The history major in me says that this is okay as long as you study the film in context and educate yourself about what actually happened, and even if you don’t, the liberties Affleck took aren’t particularly problematic.
Undeniably, however, as we approach Oscar season, some will say that Argo is the front-runner for a Best Picture win because it’s a “zeitgeist film.” While the notion of historical zeitgeist is murky, as if there was something in the air during any given period of history causing people to act and think a certain way (exceptions include the pot-polluted 1960’s), the notion of a zeitgeist film is a bit more realistic. Or perhaps its the more simple fact that producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov have made a film about Iran just as Iran is potentially becoming the number one geopolitical foe of both the U.S. and of the world at large.
Yet for all its political timeliness, Argo is not inherently political. Much like the best film of last year, Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant A Separation, this story, stripped of names and dates could have taken place anywhere. Because the history behind Argo isn’t as widely known to the general public as, say, Pearl Harbor, the story of a film-crew rescue mission would make for an entertaining political thriller in any country, time period, or language. Yet, the location of Iran gives the story that much more weight because it’s coming out at a time when politicians and pundits are arguing over the strength of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
More importantly, both of these films (Separation to a much greater extent) humanize Iranians. It’s not a spoiler to say that in both films there’s a female maid character who has agency and affects the stories in big ways. The context of Argo’s U.S.-Iran geopolitical relations is the Cold War, whose lessons we can learn from but whose politics are dead, no matter what Mitt Romney says. While the “zeitgeist” of Argo may seem geopolitical in nature, the more important lesson to take from it and from films like A Separation is cultural because most Americans see Iran as the country of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and not of a country of real people. Affleck has made a film, the best he’s ever been involved in, that intentionally succeeds as a historical Hollywood political thriller and perhaps unintentionally thrives as a more-positive-than-usual representation of a country we are constantly told is the enemy.
Jordan Mainzer is a student of History and Hispanic Studies at Brown University and the editor of art, architecture, and design blog DRA. His pieces for Frontier Psychiatrist include a reviews of PT Anderson’s film The Master,an interview with Alison Klayman, director of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a review of the A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, and Danny Brown tour. He hopes that Grizzly Affleck is here to stay so he can eventually bro out with his Bostonian Beard Brother, which totally sounds like a band name.