In one of Argo’s arm-full of self-effacing, movie land moments, Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) chides at Ben Affleck’s character, Tony Mendez, “You could teach a rhesus monkey how to direct!”
At that moment in the film, Argo’s knowing Hollywood humor is beginning to get carried away with itself. We’ve had a string of wisecracks about Hollywood liars, bad movies, and self-important producers. Arkin has roped us through a zesty haggle between his own character and a representative from the Screenwriters Guild of America. John Goodman’s character, the makeup artist John Chambers, has landed what is perhaps the movie’s single best line (On set producer: “The minotaur says his prosthetics are inhibiting his acting.” Goodman: “If he could act he wouldn’t be playing a minotaur”). And with Lester Siegel’s bit about the rhesus monkey, you almost expect Affleck to turn at the camera and give us a wry, knowing wink.
After all, there was a time in Affleck’s career, when he was soldiering through a string of films with names like Gigli and Surviving Christmas, when the actor and heartthrob may have scarcely been considered more talented – or to possess better judgment – than a rhesus monkey. But how that has changed. In a short five years, Affleck has directed three very capable films (two of which he wrote), establishing the actor as something of a serious filmmaker.
Argo will solidify that reputation. It’s a smart, gripping contemporary political thriller in line with some of the better films in the Clooney-ish genre from the recent past: Michael Clayton and Syriana. It accomplishes a difficult feat when dealing with historical material, that is, creating a scenario with cliffhangers despite the well-known history it is retelling. And while Argo is strong in its last thirty minutes, as Affleck’s character, Tony Mendez, tries to smuggle six American embassy workers out of Iran during the height of the Iranian hostage crises. It is strongest in its tongue-in-cheek Hollywood banter, which loops into the story because Mendez’s plan for the escape revolves around creating a fake movie.
The story of the Mendez’s real-life heroics was classified until the Clinton administration. Until that time, the world believed that Canada had helped hide six embassy workers who escaped in the chaos as angry mobs stormed the U.S. building in Tehran. Indeed, the six escapees did hide out in the Canadian embassy for months. But as the political temperature continued to rise in Tehran, the Canadians knew they needed to evacuate. The question: what to do with the Americans they were hiding?
Argo takes us through the backroom conversations that eventually gave birth to the plan, attributed to Mendez, who had a friend who worked as a make-up artist in Hollywood, Chambers (Goodman). “Hollywood will shoot anywhere,” is one rationale for the cover. “It’s the best of all of our bad ideas,” comes the justification to the White House brass. Argo is filled with this kind of clipped, punchy dialogue, which is one way in which the movie embraces its movie-ness, an almost self-conscious refinement of its sense of entertainment. Movies, and the relationship between the scripted and the real, also get bound up in Argo’s action in a light sort of way, particularly, as Mendez goes to L.A. to round up his fake producers to back a fake movie.
Still, it is hard to shake Argo’s populism. Argo is a celebration of mature men acting as their best selves. It is story of systems and agencies operating smoothly-enough (in the end), greased by their inherent altruism (and a fair amount of exasperation). It is a film in which virtue knows just two opponents, the vicious other (primarily Iranian national guardsman) and crises of personal confidence. And so while Affleck does a tremendous job reworking the known past into a gut-wrenching cliff-hanger that keeps us chewing our tongues until the last moment, there is never any doubt that Argo will doggedly pursue neat and sweet tied-ends.
This all makes for a fun and engaging film, but also a disappointing one. In a recent interview about the movie, Affleck remarked on its eerie relation to the current day, with U.S. Embassies again being seized, and mobs toppling regimes throughout the Middle East. And yes, on a surface level, Argo relates to all of this confusing and chaos that is shaping current events. But Argo is still a film branded with the Hollywood logo, and all the impossible dreams it represents. It is a film filled with good guys and bad guys, difficult decisions, but clear rights and wrongs. The Hollywood sign is shown in its decrepit state when we see it in the film in 1979. But by 2012, it is solid and rebuilt.