Movie Review: “Argo”
To those of us who remember going to bed each night serenaded by Ted Koppel’s voice on ABC’s “Nightline,” the latest film by Ben Affleck will bring back vivid memories.
Yet remarkably, even though we remember how the Iranian Hostage Crisis turned out, the personal stories and occasional acts of heroism behind the daily headlines remain mostly untold and little known.
“Argo” tells the griping story of a secret CIA-led mission to rescue six American hostages who managed to escape the doomed American Embassy on the day it was swarmed by an Iranian mob, which eventually led to a 444-day stalemate for those left behind who remained trapped in captivity. The six consular workers who managed to slip out a side door, just as the Embassy compound was being stormed, hid away for more than two months. They were housed at great risk inside the Canadian Ambassador’s residence, in Tehran.
Unfortunately for the hostages, the time clock is ticking. The Canadian Ambassador receives word that his mission is to close, leaving the hidden Americans in a proverbial lifeboat, now suddenly taking on water.
This sets into motion one of the oddest alliances ever for a clandestine operation, bringing together intelligence officials working alongside Hollywood insiders who must concoct a phony film as a cover story. The wacky idea is to pretend to make a movie in Iran, and smuggle out the American diplomats.
This remarkable tale makes for a most pleasing caper, which draws in the audience due to being loosely based on actual events. As the film builds to a thrilling conclusion, I found myself leaning forward on the edge of my seat.
Maybe its having worked in Washington and having served in a couple of foreign embassies, but for me the part of the film that worked best was the dead-on portrayal of bureaucracy and communications to the overall process. This point cannot be overstated. Most movies only focus on action and conflict. But the real challenges to would-be superheros are usually getting people to answer telephones and moving through the maze of lazy bureaucrats. Getting things done is simply not an easy thing, and this film does as good a job as any at showing the intricacies of the diplomatic and intelligence circles. Just as the 1976 classic “All the President’s Men” showed the grind of digging up the truth within a news organization, in a similar sense, “Argo” perfectly captures the day-to-day back and forth tug of war between (sometimes contentious) forces within government.
I was also pleased the film did not attempt to gloss over the United States’ appalling history of meddling in the internal affairs of Iran, the price for which we are still paying today. Not only did the U.S. assist in the overthrow of the Iranian prime minister back in 1953 (which happened, oddly enough just after he announced intent to nationalize Western oil companies). America also bolstered the Shah’s brutal dictatorship with weapons and support for more than three decades, and then provided him sanctuary while Iranians demanded that he be returned to Iran in order to stand trial. One can probably make a case for these difficult diplomatic decisions which were made during the Cold War period. But the point is — those decisions came at a heavy cost – and I credit the filmmakers for not casting the U.S.-Iran conflict in black and white as so many other films do, when the truth is often hued in shades of gray.
This is not to say “Argo” is without flaws. For one thing, the movie too often has a humorous tone, which detracts from the very real danger faced by just about everyone. I also found the gratuitous profanity to be annoying. Curse words very much have their place in adding a sense of realism, and I’ve witnessed expletives used more than a few times when I worked in this sector of government. But office workers at the State Department simply do not drop f-bombs all the time, especially back in 1979. As I said, it’s a minor thing – but an annoyance nonetheless.
“Argo” also goes a little overboard at times. While the appalling fashions of the late 1970′s were most certainly the norm, the movie soundtrack provides a steady flow of album rock. I had a hard time buying the old gray-haired Canadian Ambassador cuing up a Led Zeppelin record in his home during one scene. Perhaps that might happen today. It would not have happened with a 65-year-old man in 1979.
I’m also not much of a fan of Ben Affleck’s work, who has never impressed me — either as an actor or director. I saw little in this film that changes that opinion. He’s directed a number of horrible movies. So, saying this is his “best work” is a bit like suggesting the piece of chocolate wrapped inside a shit sandwich tastes good. As an actor, I have even less regard for Affleck’s spotty reel of rubbish, who has never given an impressive performance (other than playing himself in just about every movie). The stoic, unemotional, straightforward, one-dimensional demeanor may occasionally fit with the character. But every Affleck portrayal seems to be exactly the same, and his role here as a CIA operative is no different.
My final disappointment (and biggest gripe) comes with one segment of the film which was a horribly missed opportunity. Although she appears in only a few scenes, the character portrayed by the Canadian Ambassador’s housekeeper is absolutely pivotal in this film and to the overall success of the rescue mission. One peep from the housekeeper would have ended everything and probably resulted in executions. That a director with the experience-level of Affleck would not expound more on her role and the heart-wrenching dilemma she faces as a citizen of Iran without any means of escape is a terrible waste.
Without giving away spoilers, the Iranian housekeeper knows the six guests of the Canadian Ambassador are Americans. In one brief scene, she is questioned by a gun-totting revolutionary guard and she lies to protect them. Yet we are given absolutely no insight into her motives. That the hostages could (and will) escape and her lie will eventually be exposed puts her in serious danger. We later see a 20-second clip of this woman (which I will not give away) which shows what happens to her, which I found a poor attempt to neatly tie-up what must have been difficult decision for many Iranians who tended to be pro-Western and even friendly with Americans. Alas, this housekeeper was probably the most courageous person in the film, yet we fail to gain any insight into her character or motives.
Then, there is the central character played by Affleck whose personal life is needlessly intermingled with the hostage rescue story. Midway through the film, we learn he’s separated from his wife (and son), for reasons unknown. Based on one very short exchange with Hollywood producer Alan Arkin we presume Affleck is pretty much married to his job, which is the source of his problems on the home front. Yet, the film ends with a storybook ending that’s just a little too feel good. The dots simply don’t connect. It was confusing.
Despite its flaws and some valid criticism about historical accuracy (the Canadians deserve more credit than they are given), this remains one of this year’s better films. This political thriller gives the audience a great ride and an emotionally-satisfying experience.
An additional note: Don’t depart the film before seeing the credits. After the final scene, a montage of photos shows the real people portrayed in this movie. There’s also a short narrative from former President Carter which is worth hearing. I thought that added a nice final close to a film that is recommended.
6.5 Stars Out 10