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.