Argo oscillates between a political thriller and entertainment satire. Neither is done particularly well. And yet, that is one of the film’s least egregious offenses. For Argo is a film dealing with a true story, the kind of true story so strange that they had to make a movie out of it. Added into the mix is the fact that the whole story has to do with the film business, and Argo suddenly becomes a film so insular, so caught up in itself and the world of Hollywood, that the result is gaudy, exploitative entertainment that preys on real-world hot topic issues and rampant film culture in order to win over audiences.
In 1979, The Iranian Revolution takes place and the people of Iran storm the US Embassy in Tehran in protest to America giving shelter to the tyrant who oppressed the Iranian people. Six Americans escape and are taken in by the Canadian ambassadors. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), one of the CIA’s top exfiltration experts, devises a bizarre plan to rescue them: make a fake Star Wars knockoff and pretend to be on a location scout in Iran.
This introduces the gaudy, out of touch and obscene dimension to the story: Hollywood. As Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) drops f-bombs and espouses about how Hollywood is just a bunch of liars, the world of Iran seems such a melodramatic place. Ah, Hollywood, the place where nothing can be taken seriously. It’s such a carefree, fun and humorous world. And watching the John Chambers (John Goodman) help sell this fake sci-fi film, the titular Argo, to Hollywood is a jab at how silly the whole business is.
Except Argo, the Ben Affleck directed/Chris Terrio written film, is just as trite, cliché and silly as the fake sci-fi film. Tony is an estranged husband, down on his luck, a heavy drinker, lulled from his drunken stupor to save the lives of six people, and in the process save his own life and restore his relationship with his wife and son. The film could almost be brilliantly subversive because of how minimalist Tony’s troubled family life is as a subplot, but it sells it with the kind of fake sincerity that only Hollywood could produce.
It’s obscene how “topical” this film is without dealing with the topic in any meaningful way. With the current tense relations in Iran, it’s the perfect time to pull out this bit of history to prey on American solidarity. But the film isn’t about the conflict. The film opens as a serious, dramatic political thriller, but that’s just the setup for the meat of the film where Ben Affleck gets to make a fake movie and save the day. Who the Iranian people are, the figureheads of their movement and what they want are subjugated to a quick bit of exposition that the film shuffles to the background within the first ten minutes.
It isn’t interested in the people of Iran, what the revolution even means and America’s responsibility in the entire mess. The Iranians are primarily represented by nameless dark-eyed, burly looking men who yell Farsi at Americans in order to add tension. The film feigns interest in history and politics insofar as much as it allows the film to contrive stakes that get the audience pumped and build enough tension to make for a good show.
Likewise, the film isn’t interested in the lives of the six people who escaped. It’s a shame because the six actors who play the six US Embassy members give fantastic performances (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denharm and Kerry Bishe) despite the fact they’re given wire thin characters and practically no character moments to make them distinct from one another. The film is more interested in spending time with Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, all who give placid performances.
Argo is a disgusting film. It’s exploitation of history, current political climate and movie love in the name of cheap entertainment. There’s no insight into the political process or involvement in the real lives of the people who lived this story. It’s more interested in mulling about movies as deception and then hypocritically becoming the same kind of deception, but without any sense of irony. It’s a completely empty film, with nothing to offer the audience except for a quick and dirty thrill ride. For some, that’s enough. But if cinema holds even a shred of responsibility towards its subject or its audience, Argo is an irresponsible filmmaking at its finest.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing