Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)

I seem to have seen a lot of ‘fact based’ films recently, and here is another.

Studying history at school, we had to do a project based on our own research. As the Iranian revolution had just happened and the siege of the US embassy was underway, I kept cuttings from the daily papers right through the siege, including the terrible humiliation of the fake executions and the horrible misfire of the attempted helicopter rescue mission.

But I remained completely unaware of this aspect of the story until this film came out.

The film is bookended by explanatory sections, the opening one describing the background to the Islamic revolution utilising Jack Kirby style cartoons (in the closing credits, Kirby is thanked, his role in the actual events acknowledged even though not depicted in the film itself), and the closing section using side-by-side comparison of actual persons and scenes next to their fictional depictions.

This all sets everything for the action-proper to start, which is the storming of the US embassy and our six US embassy staff making their escape onto the Tehran streets from a side-door and them slipping away from the melee.

Back in the US, and CIA ‘exfiltration’ expert Tony Mendez is called to a meeting where a plan is to be announced on how to get the six staff out of Iran. They are hiding out in the Canadian embassy, having been turned away by the UK and New Zealand embassies, and need to be spirited away as quickly as possible, before the Islamic fanatics of the Revolutionary Guard find them and kill them as spies. Mendez is told he is just there as an observer, so the State Department can say they’ve run the idea past the CIA but when he hears what they have planned, Mendez cannot prevent himself from pointing out the utter inadequacy of their plan – it simply won’t work.

Challenged on whether he has a better plan, Mendez is forced to admit he has not but later, talking with his son who is watching a TV screening of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Mendez remembers that Oscar-winning make-up artist, John Chambers (played with vim by John Goodman, who has great scenes with Alan Arkin) who worked on the ‘Ape films’ was on the CIA payroll, and an idea starts to take shape, of making a fake (Canadian) sci-fi film, this being the post-Star Wars era with lots of nods to the cheap knock-offs then common, travelling to Iran and passing of the embassy staff as film crew scouting for locations and then walking them through airport security onto a plane and out of the country.

I really enjoyed this film; it moves between pathos, tension and comedy deftly and integrated all the parts really well, with the point of view of the embassy staff, of the fake-film bosses and other more minor players also well presented. It was also really convincing – and that’s where my reservations lie with it. Because it tells very convincing untruths.

After watching the film, I was discussing it with a friend, who pointed out that the British press were outraged at the ‘slurs’ against the Brits, so I started looking up fact-checks. I should note that I don’t agree that this film is some kind of deliberate hatchet job. Affleck is no professional Anglo-phobe like Mel Gibson, and the comment about the Brits and Kiwis turning the americans away is, I think, a way of ratcheting up the tension and making the favour done by the Canadians seem even more of a good deed than it actually was. However, it does seem a bit petty and unnecessary, and a bit ‘cheap’. It seems the real reason the British Embassy was off limits was because that too was under siege. Surely, this would have sufficed for dramatic tension and, like the supposed ‘turning away’, could have been mentioned in a single line in dialogue? As it is, Brits are Hollywood villains yet again, which is a little frustrating.

Likewise the role of the Canadians, while they are depicted as good guys in the film, is underplayed, so the film can give more of the credit to the US. Now, I get that this is a feelgood movie and that this was a good-news story in a bad-news historical episode, but I still like my history accurate unless there is a really good reason for it not being so. I don’t mind that details about Mendez, about the Hollywood team and about the construction of the plan and its execution have been ‘streamlined’ and made into a clearer narrative; this is what fictional depictions of historical event must do. But when credit and blame is being reassigned for the sole basis of making a more gung-ho version of history, then I do have serious problems with it.

My last gripe with the film was the ending of it, which was far too dramatic. Affleck pushes far too hard, for my taste, to get a nailbiting finale, which ends up all too Where Eagles Dare and shatters the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. This attempt for a thrilling finish ruins for me, ironically, all the tension that has been built up because I found myself disengaging from the action and sitting back, thinking ‘now I’m sure this didn’t really happen’. In a work of pure fiction, I wouldn’t worry about details like this but Affleck has made such a big deal of the reality of what he’s depicting that it does here.

So a really good, fun and informative film but it really could have been, and should have been (regardless of Oscars), so much more.


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