Hollywood loves itself, but don’t we all? (love ourselves, not Hollywood) If a movie about me came out, I’d probably fawn all over it. So it’s no surprise critics and film industry people tend to fall head over heels for movies about making movies. If the director happens to be a former wunderkind A-list actor now turned actor-director…well, the stage is set for overhype. Argo, based on a real CIA operation to extract US foreign service members from Iran in 1980, is of course, about more than just making films, but then again…it’s not. Though nominally based on real events, Argo is a completely formulaic and cliche spy thriller whose manufactured thrills are buffered only by uninspiring movie industry self-referential comic relief.
In December 1979, Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US embassy in Tehran, demanding their deposed Shah be returned to face the people’s justice. Six foreign service members were able to flee the scene, and sought refuge at the personal home of the Canadian ambassador. Trapped in prison with a housemaid and comfortable couches, they waited while the CIA and Canada coordinated a joint operation to extract the Americans. The plan was simple: create a production company working on a sci-fi movie, pretend to film it in Iran, and then sneak out the six Americans as members of the movie crew.
The mastermind of the rescue plan was CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck). In real life there was another guy, too, but maybe Matt Damon was busy. We first see him lying in bed with his suit on, Chinese food containers littering the ground of a dirty, unkempt room. We soon learn he is separated from his wife and son because of his all-consuming dedication to work. Never seen that before, am I right? The story is based on real life, so I don’t know…but an unlikely protagonist who’s messy and whose marriage is undermined by work? Come on! I could already see the concluding scene where he reunites with his wife, who takes him back because his job is done and now he wants to focus on what really matters. Does that exact scene actually happen at the end of the movie? No spoilers here.
Mendez comes up with the movie plan, which gets green lit so he travels to LA, where the next 30 minutes of the film are a string of self-referential movie industry jokes. The audience is bombarded with campy one-liners like “You think the CIA is full of liars, try Burbank!” or “If you think Iran’ll be dangerous, try pitching a movie to MGM!” Really great stuff. Mendez teams up with makeup artists John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a fake movie production. They pick a sci-fi screenplay called Argo (Gasp! That’s the movie’s title!) and go all out making posters, renting office space, and even hosting a script reading event at a Hollywood area hotel to flesh out the illusion. In a historically mishandled attempt to create gravitas, the reading event scene cuts back and forth between costumed actors mouthing off sci-fi babble and an Iranian press event where a somber woman once again demands the return of the Shah and threatens to try and punish the captured Americans. That’s deep, bro.
And now you have the basic setup. Mendez then travels to Iran, pretending to be part of a Canadian film crew, and he works towards rescuing the Americans. Most of what takes place in Tehran is completely made up for the film. Hollywood has always had a shaky relationship with history, but for some reason I found the blatant revision in Argo particularly distasteful. Granted, this was a CIA, covert operation. I assume even though the information was revealed to the public in the 90’s, some stuff still needs to be kept on the down-low or altered, but the film goes way beyond the call of duty in order to present cheap thrills to its audience. In a key scene late in the film, Iranian soldiers in trucks and police cars chase a jet taking off on a runway, which aside from not having happened at all, isn’t even physically possible. The entire airport escape was synthesized by Affleck to create thrills and tension. I realize Big Film does this all the time, but I couldn’t help but feel cheated. Like discovering your buddy’s Cabo story actually took place in Sarasota, and featured a Hooters waitress instead of three whores and a lion tamer. The end credits juxtapose pictures of the six Americans with the actors who played them, to show how authenticity was important to the filmmakers. It was the only time I laughed during the movie.
Historical accuracy aside, Argo is just an uninspiring production in general. The script feels like everything you’ve seen before. Nothing sounds like it came from an original character or real person. Bryan Cranston plays Mendez’ superior, who answers everything with profanity laden one-liners. But don’t fear! Beneath the gruff exterior lies a heart of gold, and a manager who will do anything for his subordinates. Alan Arkin is great at playing Alan Arkin, as is John Goodman at being John Goodman. Affleck infuses Mendez with so little personality he could pass for one of the robots in the actual fake sci-fi film. But sometimes when things don’t go his way he drinks and stares at walls, so I guess that’s character depth. We also get a scene where a shirtless Affleck gets dressed before going to airport, just to let the audience know he still has a six-pack. We are unfortunately never shown half naked women, but hey, it’s Iran. Everything about the production just stands out as tired and, if anything positive, merely mediocre.
So yes, Argo is about a CIA operation to save Americans in Iran, but only nominally. Affleck throws fact and history to the wind in order to create a by-the-numbers-riveting, Hollywood thriller, filled with all the cliches and puddle-deep thrills that put butts in seats. It seems unfair to the source material. I keep seeing Ben Affleck on talk shows saying things like “The most amazing part is that it’s all real!” Except it isn’t. In more ways than one, Argo is exactly and only a movie about making movies. Plot elements aside, it is a study in warping history in order to make real events feel more like a film. Unfortunately for the layman, that’s not enough to justify price of admission. The tag line says it all: The mission was real, but the movie was (and is) fake.