This film is based on a true story. But Argo is not a true story. It’s had its fair share of critics pointing out the many inaccuracies: Mohammad Reza Pahlavi became Shah in 1941, but he only ruled from 1953; the British first hid the refugees before it was deemed unsafe; a New Zealand diplomat drove them to the airport and the overall role of the Canadians has been downplayed in favour of the CIA. There done. Move on. This film is not a documentary and that’s fine.
But you should see Argo if you want to get your teeth into something that’s been missing from mainstream cinema for far too long: dramatic tension. The script, the cinematography, the actors and the editing all work together to ratchet up the pace. This film has a confident and naturalistic tone. It feels like Affleck is starting to become a filmmaker in the vein of Eastwood. Argo fuses two very different worlds and moods to create a coherent whole. It balances the fantasy of Hollywood – the staged fights in the studio lot – with an unglamorous account of what it might have been like to watch a wave of protestors climb the perimeter fence and break down your door. Argo may play with the truth, but it’s full of candid detail: an embassy official goes outside to reason with the mob only to be beaten; the militia guns down a man and the sound of the shot is flat and without echo. The victim falls to the floor with surprise. It’s that easy and sudden for a life to end. The hiding embassy workers berate one of their own for putting all their lives in danger when he steps outside for fresh air.
Action is tightly cropped and the colour saturated so we see layers of abstract detail before it’s suddenly pulled away to reveal individual acts of violence. Argo is all about showing how quickly violence escalates. About how easy it is for a man to grab a woman in the street and within minutes be screaming in her face. The currency of violence is sudden and unreasonable action. Violence is horrifying not just because of the act itself, but because it rejects any form of dialogue, except an equally uncompromising response. This is to Argo’s credit. The violence in the film is shaped by this vernacular.
It’s almost a relief when the action cuts back to Ben Affleck’s stoical Tony Mendez as he organises a cover studio making a fake film with John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Everything in the States is there to counterbalance the somber tone of Iran. Bryan Cranston who plays Jack O’Donnell, Tony’s boss, adds some light relief with a number of great lines. ‘Remember, they’re like those two old f*cks off the Muppets,’ he quips when he steers Mendez into a meeting with the Secretary of State and his Deputy to literally pitch his movie to the Government.
Inevitably Iran is portrayed as either fundamentally backwards or inherently corrupt. The treatment of one character does tip the balance to a more favourable portrayal. However, if you were into conspiracy theories you could see the release of this film as timely since tensions between the West and Iran are at an all-time high. Just imagine, the CIA releases a film about a fake CIA film to influence public opinion over Iran and position them further as enemies. Why, that would be ridiculous.
It was great to experience genuine suspense in a cinema again. It was conspicuously absent during the Dark Knight Rises, a film I now struggle to remember really – it was just two men talking gruffly to one another, bland explosions and an over saturated grade. And Anne Hathaway. In Prometheus, Scott threw out all the delicious tension from the first Alien film and replaced it with questions, just endless questions and no answers. All I could think at the time was ‘who cares?’ I suspect the biggest takeout of all this is if you don’t care, you can’t expect any sort of investment. Well I did care about the embassy workers in Argo, and I cared about Tony, and even though I already knew they made it out, I still wanted to see it happen.
My only complaint is the retrograde American Apparel aesthetic of the cast. I kept thinking I’d seen the female cast somewhere before, possibly in their underwear.
Oh, one last thing, the CIA front, Studio Six received spec scripts from many young filmmakers, including one supposedly from Steven Spielberg. At least according to Popbitch.