When a film declares itself to be “based on real events”, there is a certain temptation for me to do as much research as I can on the subject matter beforehand in order to engage with the film by contradicting the veracity of each detail. Of course you have to allow for the limitations of the medium and a degree of creative licence, but, as an amateur snob, I find no greater self-righteous titillation than poking holes in Hollywood’s attempts to present the truth when it comes to historical events. It’s the prerogative of an embittered writer.
Argo, Ben Affleck’s third directorial venture (after The Town and Gone Baby Gone) about the unlikely—but true—rescue of six American diplomats stranded in post-revolutionary Iran, is being touted by many as one of the best films of the year, and there are more than a few critics dribbling over their keyboards whilst blurting out the word “Oscar” like over-enthusiastic Tourettes sufferers. However, without having indulged my inner captious pedant, it quickly became clear while watching the film that Affleck had taken great liberties with the accuracy of the events—ridiculous liberties. I’m going to go ahead and call it a double bluff, party because this is my first review and I don’t feel that I’m qualified to wag my tongue at the vast swathes of critical bootlicking that have greeted this movie, but also for the reason that, despite its omissions and occasional downright fabrications, Argo is an incredibly absorbing experience throughout.
The film begins with a mix of storyboard graphics and archive footage accompanied by a female voiceover, who gives some context to the subsequent shots of enraged Iranian protesters breaking into the American embassy in Tehran, and the striking image of a burning American flag. So far, so controversial. Moments later, I’m fairly certain I saw a shot of the angry mob throwing shoes at a poster of Elvis Presley. Blue suede shoes. Those protesters know how to rub salt in the wounds.
Six Americans manage to flee the embassy for the relative safety of the Canadian ambassador’s house, where they anxiously imbibe copious bottles of wine while, back in the US, the Central Intelligence Agency do their utmost to subvert their name by hatching bad idea after bad idea in order to exfiltrate the group. Enter Tony Mendez, who comes up with “the best bad idea we have”, for six of them to pose as a Canadian film crew on a location expedition. After searching frantically for a convincing fictional film treatment, they settle on Argo, a science fiction movie. Hilarity ensues.
The leader of this covert operation, Mendez (Affleck) is portrayed as an out-of-favour CIA agent struggling to keep his life together (he has an unmanageable noodle box infestation in his apartment), and is inexplicably separated from his wife and young son—a cleverly yet unconvincing subplot which seems like a fictional addition that has been crowbarred into the story, mainly because it is.
The trouble with Affleck playing the lead role is that he is an exceptionally conspicuous spy; tall, handsome and broad shouldered, suited and booted like a member of the Bee Gees who was rejected for taking himself too seriously. Secondly, for a man of Spanish descent, he doesn’t look as though he has enough Hispanic blood in him to fill a sangria glass. But this is another of Affleck’s ironic comments on the way in which directors’ egos can get in the way of a great film and forgo accuracy in favour of a chiselled, all-American leading man. It’s not quite Laurence Olivier playing Othello, but then Affleck is no Olivier. In a meeting room discussion, he delivers the curious line, “Exfils are like abortions. You don’t want to need one, but when you do, you don’t do it yourself,” with the bleak poignancy of an actor who can’t believe that line made it through the editing process, but is powerless to do anything—forgetting that he’s also directing this film.
The undeniably nerve-racking plot is brilliantly offset with comedic turns by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, who play makeup technician John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel. These two performances steal the show, if only because they are the only characters to have developed personalities of their own. They spend their time making the fictional sci-fi movie as believable as possible—”If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.” These scenes create a balance between substance and farce without detracting from the encroaching escape drama, which is no mean accomplishment.
It’s impossible not to feel the pressure mount as the group usher their way through airport security with their fake passports and newly learned identities—anyone who has attempted to breach the scrutiny of airport staff whilst knowingly smuggling a 50ml bottle of water in their bag will understand the terrifying exhilaration of this scenario. The intensity is sustained when the group are detained for further questioning by the guards, who survey their passports with grim suspicion. You are unlikely to witness another film which has such a tense brush with bureaucracy as its climactic moment. Eventually though, they are allowed through, and by the time the guards realise their error, the plane has already begun take-off. The Iranian’s admirable efforts to catch a full-speed airliner go unrewarded, and the six relieved stowaways all but break out into a rendition of ‘Stayin’ Alive’.
According to Mendez’s own account, the security check at the airport went incredibly smoothly without a single hitch. But the truth, as we know, can sometimes get in the way of a good story. Affleck, thankfully, never lets that happen. And it’s a rather thrilling ride.