Critics and audiences agree: Ben Affleck has done it again. With its numerous award nominations and victories, including last night's Best Picture, Argo will surely join Gone Baby Gone and The Town as an Affleck-directed box-office success, and rightfully so. In Argo (based on Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 article in Wired, which itself is about the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis), classic movie elements are strung together to weave a story that leaves the viewer hostage to the film’s suspense.
Argo’s greatest success lies in its ability to capture the viewer’s mood. Pairing the hangings of counterrevolutionaries with Hollywood dazzle and wit is an odd cocktail, indeed, and the viewer is made to feel it. The narrative itself is always comprehensible, but rather disorienting, as it well should be: the strangeness of the actual historical plot made little room for factual liberties to be taken without backlash by the writers and director.
Sadly lacking is emotional depth in the protagonist, Tony Mendez, played by Affleck himself. Stone-faced throughout, sympathizing with him is emotionally draining. The least interesting portions of the film are those associated with him, and other characters are forced to serve as virtual beacons of light to distract from our bearded paragon of laconism. Perhaps ironically, the characters in the Hollywood industry, played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, come across as the most human. The hostages, while forming a dynamic group appropriately suffering from cabin fever, are minor characters: they enrich the plot and make their experience memorable, but are not given any more attention than is necessary.
Enthusiasts of history will appreciate the film’s initial depiction of the Islamic Revolution and its resulting despotism, although the portrayal is abandoned by the end of the film. This is a shame, as few films have done as well as this one at capturing the raw power of a politically motivated mob, or the sadly all-encompassing role suspicion plays in the aftermath of revolution. The historical lessons are predictably and shamelessly sacrificed for the sake of suspense. Instead of enriching viewers with evenhanded examination of political implications, Affleck forces viewers to anxiously follow the hostages from checkpoint to checkpoint until they reach their salvation.
The film has been criticized by some for its factual errors. Some of these errors, such as the appearance of an Ewok figurine from the 1983 Star Wars movie, are benign. Yet others, like the fact that,even during the revolution there were still US teachers in Tehran are more serious, since they alter the plot. Further error can be found in the final airport scene: while in the film, the team is harassed, interrogated, and chased by the police, in reality, the US saviors made it onto the plane without a hassle. More importantly, the movie inaccurately makes the CIA (with the help of Hollywood) the sole hero, while in reality, Canadian Ambassador Taylor did much to aid the US diplomats in what is known historically as the “Canadian Caper”—although, given the source of the movie’s funding, this may not be surprising.
Beyond technical criticisms, the film has opened audiences up to new perspectives of the United States’ relationship with Iran. Through the depiction of the countless murders and rampant suffering of Iranian civilians under the rule of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, it reveals them as a people then under a cruel dictator. Although on the surface, the movie makes the United States out to be the victim of a radical Iranian regime, to a close observer, Iran is the film’s true victim. Argo creates empathy for the Iranians, who are enraged that the man who caused their countrymen, their friends, and their families to endure decades of hardship is being protected by the very country that helped keep him in power. Despite the revolution being an internal upheaval, the United States saw fit to interfere by providing Shah Pahlavi asylum, which, as one would expect, only added fuel to the fire. The story, perhaps pointedly, highlights the consequences of powerful states’ interventionism, especially in popular movements.
Some Iranians, at least as shown in the movie, had real hatred towards the United States: the events of Argo depict the beginning of the end of US-Iranian relations. With the fall of the Iranian dictatorship and the rise of the Ayatollahs, Iran completed its transformation into a theocracy. Moreover, the role of the United States in fometing resistance to the Islamic Republic abraod, and the subsequent US support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, furthered the anti-American sentiments in Iran.
While there is a fair degree of expected inaccuracy necessary to render Argo as a film account of one of history’s great escapades, one gets the feeling that the director simply tries too hard to enthrall audiences with action. Reality itself tells a story well exciting enough, and the seasoning distracts from the taste of the meal. Not everything must come down to second-by-second, skin-of-the-teeth plot points for the viewer to know that the situation is precarious. While this film appears to have taken a few lessons from, and may very well have been like Charlie Wilson’s War, it ends up much more like Safe House.