Argo is a great, polished suspense film – unshowy in its period details and confident in its use of plotting and editing devices to ramp up the sweaty-palms tension. It convincingly depicts and balances three different milieus in 1979-80: Tehran; the CIA and Washington, D.C. bureaucracy; and Hollywood. It’s also unexpectedly topical, carrying extra emotional resonance in light of recent events. You can’t watch protesters scaling the U.S. embassy walls in Tehran without thinking of similar scenes in Cairo and Benghazi last month.
Argo draws a connection between the CIA and Hollywood, two seemingly different enterprises. At one point, CIA agent Tony Mendez and Hollywood producer Lester Siegel discuss their estrangement from their families; the film suggests that the artifice, the lack of authenticity, inherent in both settings makes it difficult for the men to form meaningful connections to something real – to their families and children. “It’s hard to wash the bullshit off after being covered in it all day,” Lester remarks.
Argo also doubles down on the ersatz nature of movies. If all films are artifice, then the fake film-within-the film is a fake of a fake, sort of doubly empty. Yet this simulacrum does end up saving lives, so it has very real consequences. And a storyboard image of a father and son – a token of nothingness, of a film that will never exist – actually expresses Tony’s very real love for his own son.
By intercutting scenes of the fake film’s table read and press conferences in Iran, Argo also questions the “staginess” of seemingly real events. “Do you ever wonder if it’s all for the cameras?” Tony asks Lester about the televised protests in Tehran. “Well, they have the ratings,” Lester responds rather flippantly. Then both men sober up, realizing that even if the unrest is stage-managed, it is costing people’s lives.
Tony and Lester’s comments about what’s on TV reflects Argo’s broader interest in the media, not just Hollywood. Diane Sawyer, Ted Koppel, and Mike Wallace pop up frequently on TV sets throughout the film. The prominence of television coverage of the hostage crisis suggests nostalgia for a time when we all, for the most part, watched the same thing on TV, turning to the same news sources, before the media splintering of the 24-hour cable news channels.
With its in-jokes about inept directors and producers, Argo is catnip for industry types. I watched the film at a SAG-AFTRA/Writers’ Guild screening, and the biggest laugh was for Lester’s comment to Tony about following the right process to option the script for the fake film: “You’re worried about the Iranians, try the Writers’ Guild.” I suspect the industry-friendly humor and the skillful suspense will make Argo an awards-season favorite.
I’m all for that, except for one issue – why isn’t a Hispanic actor playing Antonio Mendez? I have a problem with white actors portraying people of color (Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart comes to mind), especially when there still seems to be resistance toward actors of color portraying even characters of color (I’m thinking of the Twitter-kerfuffle over Amandla Stenberg being, and I’m paraphrasing here, “too black” to play Rue in The Hunger Games). Given that general mindset and the underrepresentation of actors of color in lead roles, I think it’s a shame that the makers of Argo squandered the opportunity to have a Hispanic actor play the lead role in a major film.
Argo is definitely on my list of films to see. The themes remind me slightly of Wag the Dog, which is a film I really liked.
Great review, thanks!
Thanks for reading and commenting regularly! Interesting note about Wag the Dog. I haven’t watched it recently, but I think Argo is ultimately less cynical. It would be interesting to re-watch it with Argo in mind.
Good to know (about Argo). Wag the Dog is, indeed, quite cynical (but I really do love that film). The Ben Affleck connection was, for me, a bit of an off-putter, but after your review I want to see it much more now.
Ben Affleck can be a bit limited as an actor, but I must say, after this film, I’m very impressed with him as a director (I enjoyed The Town a lot, though I was underwhelmed by Gone Baby Gone).
Ah, yes, likewise. Gone Baby Gone was weirdly unengaging somehow, but I, too, enjoyed The Town. Affleck seems to do to me in a milder sense what Will Ferrell does in a huge sense: I either really like him or really, really don’t (in Ferrell’s case, mostly really, really don’t).
Good Will Hunting and Dogma (a personal favorite), thumbs up. Also fine in Chasing Amy and Paycheck (but I’m a sucker for John Woo and Kevin Smith (minus Jersey Girl)).
But he’s one of the things that made Daredevil my second most disliked superhero movie (Elektra wins that category by a mile). And then, of course, there’s Gigli. I did love what happens to him in Smokin’ Aces! (Same “Ha, Ha, Yes!” as for Steven Seagal in Executive Decision!)
And when I look at his whole filmography, I have to admit I’ve liked him more often than not.
I guess bad superhero movies just run in that family 🙂
The ‘real’ film is fake, too. It’s full of lies about what really happened, patronizes Canadians and spits on the British and the New Zealanders who did NOT refuse to help the Americans. The Canadians did far more than put the Americans up in their embassy and stand around looking pretty and serving tea. Argo is the kind of movie that makes people from other countries despise Americans and their self-serving attitudes.
Thanks for stopping by. I’m sure Hollywood took liberties with the “true” story, as it always does.
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