by Niles Schwartz
Ben Affleck’s exfiltration thriller Argo bridges the key divergent strains of Hollywood movies. These strains split apart at roughly the same time the film takes place, 1979-1980, when the New Wave generation of American filmmakers in the studio system, Robert Kolker’s “Cinema of Loneliness” or Peter Biskind’s posse of “Easy Riders and Raging Bulls,” collapsed as financial mandates struck back with the blockbuster fantasias of the Star Wars trilogy, just as the post-Watergate “malaise” of the Carter years gave way to the colorful patriotism of Ronald Reagan. A drama filmed to evoke the Hollywood of the 1970s, Argo’s title comes from a fake Hollywood fantasy film that the CIA used as a cover to smuggle out a handful of hostages during the Iranian Revolution, “Argo” referencing Jason of the Argonauts who took a vessel to faraway lands for retrieval of the Golden Fleece. Though based on true events, Argo is blatantly manufactured Hollywood suspense, with events elongated and reconstructed to fit inside an established paradigm of satisfying thrill-a-minute moviemaking. We could then cynically fault Affleck’s film as being another product of illusion; on the other hand, we may see it as a marvelous synthesis of reality and illusion, of the churning out of images by government and entertainment complexes, with a narrative suffused with the undercurrents of a perennial mythology that migrates an archetypal story between cultures and times. In watching it, we see another kind of manufacturing going on: the imagistic manufacturing of our present age, cinematically and geopolitically.
Like Magic Mike last summer, Argo opens with the 1970s Saul Bass-designed Warner Bros. logo, and naturally we can assume that like Steven Soderbergh, Ben Affleck is, in this film about films, hearkening to a more “grown-up” period of Hollywood drama, the time of All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, The Godfather, Night Moves, Three Days of the Condor, Apocalypse Now, and Barry Lyndon. What follows is a voiceover prologue set alongside movie storyboards, taking us back to the early 1950s, when the Iranians democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who, because he sought to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, was deposed by the CIA and Britain. In his place was the CIA-backed Shah, who ruled with an iron fist for 25 years, killing and imprisoning thousands of Iranians who denounced his puppet government. This nurtured resentment in the population, who rebelled with the explosive revolution in 1979 (itself connected in many ways with other radical uprisings happening throughout Europe and the United States). The Shah fled and received asylum in the United States, further cementing anti-U.S. sentiment, and the Ayatollah took over. Persia and the West were now officially enemies on the world stage, their antagonism as strangely theatrical as it was genuine.
This prologue isn’t unfamiliar to anyone with curiosity to explore some history books or spend an afternoon on the Internet. But it’s the feeling of Argo’s prologue that proves meaningful and interesting to me. With the narration alongside the storyboards, Affleck establishes how history and film are related, and this idea will be constantly reinforced throughout the next two hours. The tone of the prologue is fantastical, having more in common with Star Wars, Dune, or last spring’s commercial folly John Carter than All the President’s Men, or a true-life 1970s espionage thriller like Olivier Assayas’ Carlos or Steven Spielberg’s Munich. The illustrations make Iran look like another planet, our collective cinematic subconscious tying it to perhaps Luke Skywalker’s Tatooine. The Shah might as well be Emperor Palpatine from George Lucas’ universe, the invisible spooks of the CIA being Darth Vader incarnates. We might also recall that when George Lucas was writing his space opera during Vietnam, his rebels taking on a huge galactic empire weren’t based on the American military, but rather the underdog Vietcong, a comparably less organized group able to overwhelm the imposing imperial structure.
Witnessing the masses of protesters and rebels prepared to storm the American embassy, where Affleck may well be using Philip Kaufman’s strategy of filming the Soviet invasion of Prague from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by mixing authentic documentary footage with staged material, the presence of images and image-making is hammered repeatedly. We see the security television screens inside (making the security room appear like a Live TV studio control room straight out of Network, which is subsequently referenced by name) and by figures outside filming the action. The prologue stresses the filming of history, the framing and shaping of a narrative: World Events become their own big budget productions. In the collision of science fiction/space opera with historical docudrama, Argo stresses how people across the world share myths through the fantasy of filmmaking, the manufacturing of images, or craftily making something out of nothing.
“Image manufacturing” is something that director and star Affleck is familiar with, being that only ten years ago he was fast on his way to becoming a tabloid joke, the victim of an aperture’s overexposure, with the pop spotlight of “Bennifer” or the oversold excesses of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor or the painfully inane Daredevil. Climaxing, perhaps, with receiving a ridiculous satirical hand-job from the hands of Eric Cartman – aka “Yenifer Lopez” – on South Park, Affleck has retreated from the bombast of uncontrolled images but taking charge of the camera-eye personally. In 2007, he directed – and did not act in – a mostly spectacular adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Boston crime thriller Gone Baby Gone, a stunning investigative procedural starring his brother Casey which only seemed to lose hold on itself with its denouement of conclusive flashbacks.
He continued to rehabilitate with a widely respected and well constructed heist drama, The Town, in which he gave an effectively restrained performance as a thief looking to float above the traps of the law (Jon Hamm) and the unpredictability of his best friend (a terrific live-wire performance by Jeremy Renner). Affleck’s reputation as a talented filmmaker continued to flourish with it, though I think The Town’s acclaim has more to do with how there simply aren’t that many fine genre films anymore; to me, the film feels soft and over-coalesced in a fast style that appeals to viewers addicted to sensation. It pales in comparison to its (uniformly more tragic, more richly textured, and aesthetically abrasive) influences, like Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Michael Mann’s Heat and Thief, and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (despite what some articles may argue, though the “narrative” of a young Affleck project being superior to an elder Scorsese effort is an appealing thesis for writers to explore).
Fortunately Argo earns Affleck his stars and is his most accomplished and satisfying endeavor, with only the occasional annoying establishing-tracking shot around a city (far more agitating to me than any director’s use of the over-vilified “shaky cam”), as the director/actor, much like his producer George Clooney, makes an accessible sociopolitical entertainment on the boundary of greatness (I’m not sure it quite gets there), efficiently plugging into the pipeline of his Comic Book-addled generation – that same one so beloved by his first significant collaborator, Kevin Smith, in the Geek comedies Mallrats (where Affleck was wonderful as a Fashionable Male douchebag) and Chasing Amy, in which the culture of sci-fi action figures was a pretext for a comic-book artist’s foray in serious romance (and as we see dudes discussing sexual mishaps in a moment modeled on the aquatic scars from Spielberg’s Jaws, Smith’s film works). Argo’s drama of the Iranian hostage crisis sparkles – if however dishonestly in portrayal – as a drama, but it’s reflective enough with its Hollywood subtext to give the whole a texture, where nostalgia for an irretrievable past is poignant, even mournful when we consider the monopoly that franchises have on movie studios, or the present relations our country has with Iran. As Seth MacFarlane’s Ted and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World dig into nostalgia camp for laughs and rib-pokes, Affleck’s Argo lovingly explores the implications of existing in a Man-Child Generation.
Antonio Mendez, Affleck’s character in Argo, is fittingly something of a director or producer himself, specializing in constructing scenarios that the rest of the world will fall for, so that some of the CIA’s friendly assets can either escape or fulfill important missions and meetings (the real-life Mendez once arranged a black CIA man and an Asian diplomat to be made-up like Caucasian businessmen so they could have a meeting in Laos, which was under martial law). A superior explains Mendez’ job as such: he keeps a nation on the edge of its seat. “The whole country’s watching you. They just don’t know it.” Similarly, our function in the theater is to be enthralled, on the edges of our seats, during a highly elaborate escape where the stakes are high – but the illusion or hand of the filmmaker (even the celebrity hands of someone like Ben Affleck) must remain invisible (at least until the critics have fun analyzing it, ahem).
Mendez is estranged from his wife (he says they’re “taking a break”), but while on the phone with his son, whose room is decorated with Star Wars and Star Trek memorabilia (Star Wars was released in 1977; Star Trek in 1979), the two achieve a deeper kind of emotional intimacy by watching the same film on TV – in this case, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The sense of images bringing people together also gives Mendez the idea for rescuing the half-dozen American hostages trapped in the mansion of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). He calls up his Hollywood makeup-artist friend, John Chambers (John Goodman), Oscar-winner for the original Planet of the Apes, and plots to become “Kevin Harkins,” a Canadian film producer scouting locations in the Middle East with his crew of six (the hostages) for a big budget Star Wars knockoff. With the assistance of the Canadian government, he’ll hand off passports and new identities for the six hostages to “perform,” like director, writer, location scout, cinematographer, etc. The Iranians very well may be pleased with the prospect of getting the money from Hollywood, a business that, after all, doesn’t care about politics or foreign policy. It’s the zero sum game of economics. Mendez picks an elaborate sci-fi/fantasy screenplay titled Argo,” something written to capitalize on the success of Star Wars, and pre-production is launched.
As the “Argo” plot goes into effect, put forward by Mendez’ overburdened boss (Bryan Cranston), the shadow film is put on wheels by mega-producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, marvelously droll and direct as always), who – much like Dustin Hoffman’s Robert Evans-styled producer from the similar Wag the Dog (released soon after the “Argo” documents were declassified by Bill Clinton in 1997) – insists that his fake movie will be “a good fake movie.” In the relationship between Siegel and Mendez, Affleck mirrors the machinations of the movie business and the constructions of top-secret operations. Both men have families burdened by the decadence of their professions (“It’s like coal mining,” Mendez says. “You come home, you can’t wash it off.” Siegel describes similar complications in his home life’s dysfunctions). Both men also set out formidable goals for their deceptive illusions, and weave the magic is pulling off the performance.
Both men also understand how images simply affect people, mostly when they don’t realize it. At Siegel’s home, the TV – with footage of the hostage crisis – is always on. Though it flickers silently, the images are fundamental in steering whether or not the producer will go forward. There’s a grammar and syntax to how we respond to a close-up of a face in turmoil. “You ever think this is all for the cameras?” Siegel asks, pointing out the Iranian rebels grandstanding on the screen. World conflict is itself performance and spectacle (a notion controversially brought forward by several philosophers in the aftermath of 9/11/2001, in addition to being a subtext in last summer’s The Dark Knight Rises). Throughout Argo, characters find analogues in entertainment icons. Siegel identifies Mendez as “007” while referring to the six hostages as “the Brady Bunch”; talking to two State Department head-honchos (Philip Baker Hall, Bob Gunton) is described as “talking to those two old fucks on The Muppets”; an angry Texan, interviewed on the news, is spurned to harass Iranian immigrants because the images he’s seen of Tehran are making him “mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore,” like Peter Finch in 1976′s Network. Meanwhile, the sudden chaos of this changed world is referenced as the aftermath of an American film icon’s death: “John Wayne’s in the ground for six months, and this is what’s left of America.” And the epilogue of the successful mission (pardon me, but we know how the story ends), painted as a success of the Canadian government while Mendez’s team of Hollywood pros are held to secrecy, is given a melancholic spin by the movie producer. “History begins as farce and ends up as tragedy,” he says sagely. Chambers corrects him. “It’s actually the other way around. Marx said it.” “Really? Groucho?” The great philosopher of historical movements is there on a pedestal, but dressed up with the ultimate vaudeville showman’s painted mustache, cigar, and quips.
Perhaps the most bothersome thing Argo invites has to do with that “other world” of Iran, which might as well be “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” to those of us comfortably cloistered in the luxurious West. Star Wars’ desert scenes of “sand people,” after all, were filmed in the Islamic country of Tunisia, and Affleck’s film employs several CGI effects to bring the Iran of 1979 to the modern screen (with much of the principle photography otherwise occurring in Istanbul), linking the Middle East to sci-fi creation. But the separations are selective, and hide our similarities. Indeed, masscult emblems migrate between these separate worlds, much as they do between myth and history. In spite of anger towards the West, Affleck shows Iranians chowing down at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. And currently, trashy franchise movies find huge audiences on pirated DVDs “over there” (the state-sanctioned Iranian film industry, their equivalent of our big studios, apparently also love producing junk food for the eyes).
Though the film lacks a strong, central Iranian voice, the Middle Eastern world of Argo understands how Hollywood perceives and exploits them as “the Exotic Orient,” a phrase used by one government representative, conversing with Mendez/Hawkins as the undercover exfiltrator applies for filming permits. Remember, in 1981, just a year after the events in Argo, Raiders of the Lost Ark, another monument of fantastical Hollywood blockbusting, reinforced an “Otherness” to the Middle East and its inhabitants. Many people like to point out the darkly clad sword-wielder, who malevolently smiles while approaching a trapped Indiana Jones. In A Cinema of Loneliness, Robert Kolker writes about Indy’s meeting with the “Arabian giant,” whose grandstanding is met with impersonal ease by all-American Indy, who pulls out a gun and shoots the “primitive” swordsman. Kolker deconstructs the scene in light of what America had just been through, during the hostage crisis. “The ideological positioning of the viewer is made quite certain. Subjected to imagined humiliations at the hands of Middle Easterners – figures known to Western culture almost exclusively through their most violent representations – the audience, having given itself over to the hero, finds it can now subject the villains to instant, guiltless retribution. The response to this sequence in a movie theater was overwhelming. The hero’s bravura, his ability to dispatch enemies without himself getting seriously hurt, assured the viewer an instant and untroubling gratification. Reaganism had its first major filmic representation.”
And as we get deeper into Argo’s drama, with Mendez handing out fake passports to the hostages/film crew, and putting into sequence his escape plan which goes from a Tehran mansion to the airport to an airplane to Turkish airspace to cheers back home, it’s hard not to think of some of the Iranians as being “ugly Islamists,” at times even clownish when they discover they’ve been had. It’s ironic, because the last minute chase of bad-guy Iranians and innocent Americans, as a high octane Hitchcockian race against time, never happened. According to the literature on the “Argo” scheme, Mendez ran a completely smooth operation, his rouse working perfectly without obstruction. That, of course, doesn’t make for a good movie, or at least the kind of Hollywood movie Affleck and his financiers wish to make – or that fictional producer Lester Siegel would make. The illusions of our televisual imaginations, with jaundiced eyes perceiving our attackers and antagonists, have taken over the movie at hand. I elect to see the strategy as deliberate. The Khomeini dartboard we see early on, as the Embassy is under seige, points out how we trivialize our foes, reducing them to preposterous categories of evil ripe for onslaughts of righteous anger.
But during the edge-of-your-seat climactic moments in the airport, we are reminded how this Frankenstein’s monster of the Revolution owes more to our country than to innate cultural defects within Persians. The masquerading film crew shows off the “Argo” storyboards of an imperiled space people battling evil empires and despots, taking us back to the film’s prologue. The fallen emblems of evil at the conclusion of the “Argo” screenplay, the storyboards demonstrate, resemble the Statue of Liberty and that notorious Great Satan, the United States, George Lucas’ model for the evil Empire. An “American” story – “Argo” – resonates with the Revolutionary Guard, just as images on a TV screen connected father and son earlier. It’s in the secret language of film that characters find their release, their escape.
“Escape,” though, is the way of the future, the forthcoming model for American cinema following Heaven’s Gate in 1980 and the model for American culture during Reagan’s cultural amnesia, forgetful of Vietnam and Watergate. The Iranian Revolution, owing much to progressive philosophical voices, gets rid of the Shah, but is hijacked by a new tyranny. We also see the Ken Taylor’s Iranian maid – a fugitive for her duplicity – find safe passage in the border country of Iraq, an escape that may also carry dire consequences as we know bloodshed will saturate that nation over the next decade (the stinging irony being that Iran will be using American arms against Iraq). We escape, but maybe to our detriment, much like Mendez will get an award for his service to the Agency, only to have it immediately taken away.
We see Mendez come home and be surrounded by antique ornaments of “escape” in his child’s room. There’s something deeply moving as father and son are reunited, in light of where Spielberg and Lucas were helping us to escape to. Vietnam and Watergate fostered distrust of our governing “father” figures, who became distant to us, like Vito to Michael in The Godfather saga, or were exposed as rapaciously evil, like Noah Cross in Chinatown. Star Wars worked to find and redeem the missing or slain father, while Spielberg’s heroes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. found familial connection and warmth denied to them at home “out there,” from extraterrestrial visitors who were more consoling than threatening, re-establishing order to chaos. Mendez’s son is probably close in age to young Ben Affleck at that time, 1980, and here the Geek Man-Child tries to reconcile with the faded glories of Hollywood’s mature and revolutionary golden period, man and boy intersecting so it seems. The camera slowly pans across Star Wars and Star Trek action figures, the trinkets of merchandising which became so fundamental to Hollywood (“Where the real money from the movie is made,” to recall Mel Brooks’ Yogurt in the Star Wars parody Spaceballs), but, as I can personally testify, those figures meant something. But did we get lost in the fantasy, forgetting to grow up, remaining Peter Pans (and as Spielberg’s dreadful Hook revealed in 1991, that childlike disposition can be kind of stupid after a while)? The film is depressed by a past fading away, in addition to a murky future world. Everything is prologue to drama. Every present moment is like a Star Wars scroll, where the words drift away into unintelligibility.
Affleck, no doubt, loves the breadth of the George Lucas and Steven Spielberg space universe that inaugurated a new period in movies (more on that next week), but there’s a plea for memory in Argo’s final moments, yearning for the faded Easy Riders, Raging Bulls years. Affleck has a pointed emphasis on “hard copy” or physical documents here, much like David Fincher’s Zodiac. There’s a perplexing sense of faded material that is so distant from out digital era of virtual space. The “Argo” documents are at last taken to the bowels of the State Department, a moment eerily evocative of the final destination of Spielberg and Lucas’ Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I think is a structural model for Argo‘s screenplay by Chris Terrio. Movies that open and dissipate in a week’s time, events existing in a vacuum, remind me of a 24-hour news cycle, where history regurgitates without context, endlessly, and real-world moments are shipped off to the Ark’s resting place, if not Rosebud’s devouring fire from Citizen Kane. World events veer uncomfortably close to catastrophic wars between “Us” and “Them,” and the prayer is that cinema can give us some perspective. Or will we, as we have with most of our recent conflicts, simply sit back and passively watch it tick by without end, much like the popular television serials that insist on cliffhanging until the money runs out? Argo is a film where history and entertainment are one in the same, confused and nurturing each other. I think the film invites us to acknowledge and learn from that. But I can’t be sure how it will go over with everyone else, who simply might just be thrilled, satisfied, and ready for the next big adventure film.