Argo accomplishes the remarkable feat of striking a balance between drama, thrills, laughs and politics. It could have been an outright comedy, sending up Hollywood in a merciless satire, and it could have been a thoroughly tense and gripping espionage thriller. To be both of these and more is testament to the craftsmanship of Chris Terrio’s screenplay and Ben Affleck’s superb direction, which handles the different styles necessary for the contrasting sections and maintains an appropriate tone across the disparate elements. Equally, Argo avoids the pitfalls of being either a tedious and offensive piece of anti-Iranian propaganda, or a ponderous piece of finger-wagging at the US.
Where The Iron Lady spectacularly failed to be political, Argo accomplishes a remarkable piece of political balance. In the current climate, propaganda and political correctness are in constant tension, and Argo manages this tension by not offering judgement. Affleck does not apportion blame for the hostage crisis, but also does not shy away from historical evidence. The opening storyboards that relate the history of Iran feature a nationalised oil industry that made the people prosperous, and the replacement of that government, with foreign aid, by one that would serve the oil interests of the USA and the UK. Consequently, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 seems a reasonable response to almost thirty years of foreign-backed government that disrespected traditional Islamic beliefs. Politically, this is a bold stance for Affleck to take, presenting an Islamic uprising as a political revolution rather than religious fanaticism. Terrorism does not come up, and while the Iranian Revolutionary Army is certainly intimidating and aggressive, the members are not presented as psychotic, but justifiably angry and indignant.
Nor does the film perform a laboured critique of US foreign policy. Plenty of films do this and many quite well, such as Rendition (Gavin Hood, 2007), Fair Game (Doug Liman, 2010) and Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010). But Argo contents itself with simply presenting the historical evidence and allowing the viewer to form their own opinion. By focusing on the human element, the film allows us to see the impact upon ordinary people of both revolutionary anger and capitalist greed. There may be some who bemoan any presentation of the CIA and US foreign policy as anything other than the epitome of evil – even a humanitarian mission like that undertaken by Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) can be seen as an act of American imperialism and the Embassy fugitives should have been caught. I find this attitude unduly cynical and quite offensive – if we can feel empathy for the Iranian people then we can for the Americans who are equally victimised, ultimately by the same culprit. Or to quote Lester Siegel (Alan Alda), “Argo fuck yourself!”
Satires about Hollywood range from the unnerving Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) to the outrageous For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006). Argo accomplishes much that these films do and does so with neatness and economy, plus it has the bonus of being based on actual events. Lester Siegel and John Chambers (John Goodman) were a real producer and make-up artist in the 1970s, and Argo’s presentation of the lies, bluster and outright absurdity in movie-making is presented as both plausible and completely normal. This is crucial – rather than making Hollywood appear silly through caricature or stylisation, Argo plays it straight with simple presentation, again allowing the viewer to make up their own mind. I laughed out loud at several points during the Hollywood section of the narrative, such as Siegel’s anecdote about “knowing” Warren Beatty. Alda’s performance is larger than life which suits his character, and in a town known for frauds, fame and fantasy, he fits perfectly. The stages of film production are traced in all their showbiz glory, including the acquisition of a script, a cast reading complete with sci-fi costumes, and the more mundane office and (essential) advertisement in Variety. The cumulative effect of these scenes give the viewer reason to care that this film is produced – an interesting what-if would be for Argo to be entirely about the production of such a film; would the viewer’s investment been as high? I believe that it would – the passion and conviction of Siegel is infectious, and there is much to be enjoyed in the depiction of success, especially in such a weird and wonderful setting as Hollywood.
While the Hollywood section of Argo is highly amusing, the bulk of the film follows thriller conventions, from the storming of the US Embassy and the escape of the six fugitives, to the final act when Mendez joins them and must lead them through Tehran. Argo delivers several highly tense set pieces – there were at least three points at which I let out a breath I had been holding. The casting helps: while Affleck is the biggest name in the film, the other recognisable faces – Goodman, Alda, Cranston – are all either in Washington or Hollywood. The fugitives in Tehran are all played by relative unknowns, so there is no star baggage to indicate who is more likely to live or die. Furthermore, the opening scenes establish these characters very well, thrust into a perilous situation. The sense of fear is conveyed through the combination of the performances and Affleck’s close, intimate cinematography, and also the ambient soundtrack. Shifting from hushed tones to eruptions of shouting, the atmosphere of omnipresent danger is almost palpable. I was struck by the sound of footsteps – hurried, on-the-verge-of-panic steps as they run from the embassy, and also voices – bustle in the market, discussions among the Revolutionaries at the embassy, and most of all in the breathlessly tense climax at the airport, when the fugitives are in most jeopardy.
Perhaps ironically, tension is exacerbated through the absence of violence. Not a single American agent fires a weapon in Argo, and despite the constant threat the film has few moments of actual violence. This places emphasis upon the actors and their fearful reactions, as well as those playing Iranians, especially Farshad Farahat as a checkpoint guard at Tehran Airport who is frightening when shouting in Persian, but terrifying when whispering in English. Similarly, the danger to the fugitives is increased through the (literal) piecing together of shredded documents, rather than men with guns chasing them. When armed men finally do chase the fugitives, it is all the more nerve-shredding for being the culmination of all the tension that has been built up previously.
Argo is also interesting as a period piece. I was struck by the moments in which Mendez or his CIA superior Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) communicate via landlines, diplomatic telephones and radios, as these contrast with the modern day equivalent where computers and cell phones are always within easy reach. It is surprising how much tension can be generated by the simple inability to contact the crucial person who will give the essential authorisation, and if the person is not beside the telephone, lives will be lost. The CIA desperately trying to find somebody without the advantages of surveillance cameras and electronic tracking could seem quaint and dated, but it actually increases the drama as it appears strange and alien in contrast to the high tech of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer (clearly, secret agents always have the initials JB). How do you get hold of the crucial person when they have no mobile and are not in the office to answer the phone? The resource used time and time again in Argo is creativity, a crucial element of intelligence that (at least on screen) can be lost in the jungle of technology. This resonates with the production of a movie, where creativity is needed at every stage, from script to publicity, creating another meta-cinematic link between the fiction spun by Mendez and the narrative spun by Affleck, and links Argo with a recent spate of nostalgic spy thrillers.
Like the contemporary-set Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) and the period features Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005) and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011), Argo displays a nostalgia for old-style espionage, more dependent on individual resourcefulness and ingenuity than high-powered technology. Mendez’s mission is entirely dependent on subterfuge and his wits; despite the urgency of some situations, patience is also needed as an instant response may not come. Much as Skyfall features a steady stripping away of 21st century benefits, so Argo demonstrates a time, not so long ago, when high speed internet connections (which always seem so much more reliable for movie characters than for us mere mortals) were not the saving grace.
The nostalgia is established from the opening credits, which are presented with the Warner Bros. logo from the 1970s. There also appeared to be scratches on the print, which was impossible because I watching a digital projection. For there to be “scratches” means that the appearance of scratches had been added to the film data digitally, and this indicates a remarkable (and possibly excessive) commitment to the presentation of period. Historical context is not confined to what is represented but extends to the manner of presentation, creating an air of nostalgia that extends beyond the screen and into the auditorium itself.
Personally, I did not need digital scratches or an old style logo to draw me into the past. I was born in the same year as the Iranian Revolution so I remember scratches on celluloid prints and often found them irritating. Some lament the passing of projectionists and the rise of digital projection, but the presentation of a pristine image aids the illusion of looking through a window into another world, place or time. Scratches could interfere with engagement in the narrative, if one pays too close attention to the presentation. That said, after the opening minutes I was sufficiently drawn into the film that I didn’t notice any further scratches.
The nostalgia demonstrated in Argo, as well as the other films identified above, suggests a perspective on espionage and foreign relations that links back to the film’s political balance. By immersing the viewer within the context of the story, providing a potted history lesson and allowing the Iranian perspective as well as the American, not to mention emphasising the importance of Canadian assistance to the mission, Argo offers a perspective that is not only politically balanced but historically astute and remarkably multi-cultural. It is a tale of globalisation set in a time before globalisation was a buzzword. Rather than being a story of espionage for nefarious purposes, here the CIA saves lives and the casting of blame or identification of villains serves no purpose. All over the world, now as then, people are in danger and in terrible situations, often as a result of political decisions made by those who never have to experience the consequences. Argo draws attention to consequence and interconnections, and dares to suggest that international cooperation is a way forward, rather than individual nations and agendas.