Argo (2012)

“It was the best of films, it was the worst of films.”

Like a nineteenth century novel, Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film, Argo (2012) is tall on plot and short on thematic complexity. To pursue the ideological implications of this observation, let us consider two tales of two cities. First, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859) uses an emphasis on plot to spin a swashbuckling yarn about Paris and London. Dickens skillfully uses the French peasantry’s rise against a corrupt and arrogant aristocracy during the French Revolution as a point of contrast to the unreformed, wretched conditions in late 18th century Britain. For its part, Argo concerns Hollywood filmmakers rescuing six American diplomats from the Islamic Revolution in 1979 Iran. But, just what sort of tale of two cities—Los Angeles and Tehran—is Argo, exactly?

In paired long shots, director Affleck presents a helicopter view of the late 1970s decayed Hollywood sign, contrasting it to a shot out the window of character Affleck’s hotel in Tehran, a similarly sprawling metropolis of some ten million people set amidst the glorious backdrop of the snow-covered Alborz mountain range. However, unlike Dickens, who cannily uses his revolutionary city to critique the purportedly stable one, Affleck’s film refuses to artistically pursue the critical project that lay just outside the view of the filmmaker’s camera. For all Tehran’s obvious repression, Los Angeles’ abuses are just as profound. Instead of pursuing this intriguing connection, Affleck merely makes stale jokes about Hollywood’s idiocy by paradoxically using classical Hollywood storytelling to patriotically celebrate the rescue of the American diplomats by brave CIA agent, Tony Mendez (played predictably by Affleck himself).

Affleck eschews Charles Dickens, instead following liberal huckster, Michael Moore. Argo begins with a comic book retelling of the modern history of Iran. The film accurately relates the CIA’s 1953 overthrow of the popular Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq, and Shah Reza Pahlavi’s subsequent U.S. supported quarter century imitation of Louis XVI’s decadence. However, for a film supposedly thematically interested in artifice, Affleck stops before the most damning critique of the United States’ culpability in ruining modern Iran. As David Halberstam relates in his excellent book, The Fifties, in order to simulate a revolution against Mosaddeq, the CIA had to pay Tehran residents to pretend to protest against him, thus validating the U.S. imposition of their puppet, the Shah. Argo pretends to be about Hollywood artifice, but only to support a very different ideological agenda, a pro-American jingoism designed to win an Oscar from a liberal, but certainly not radical, Hollywood. The plan worked, but alas to the detriment of the artistry of the film.

Argo is a film about redemption, not just of Affleck’s status as a serious artist, but also of United States power, and most importantly of Hollywood’s cultural importance. Of the film’s major historical distortions—for example, the almost complete denial of the Canadians’ role as powerful actors in this drama—the most crucial one is seemingly the most apolitical and benign. That high angle, extreme long shot of the collapsing Hollywood sign is an historical impossibility. Argo is set during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981, when in fact the Hollywood sign was restored in 1978. That is to say, Argo needs to historically extend the sign’s decay in order to build its connection between the restoration of Hollywood power with that of American status.

For a film that begins with a fairly forthright indictment of the United States’ culpability in the mess that has become of Iran, the post-cartoon majority of the film is as jingoistic and sabre-rattling as other Hollywood pro-war embarrassments, from The Green Berets (1968) to Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). The Iranian militants are buffoonish from start to finish. Early in the film, one student becomes hysterical at discovering that the American diplomats have been using a photograph of the Ayatollah Khomeini as a dartboard. At the end of the film, the militants incompetently try to stop the jetliner carrying the Americans to safety, effectively reinventing a Keystone cops routine on the Tehran airport’s tarmac.

There is a great film buried within Argo, about the artifice of history, the reduction of human complexity to Hollywood images. But Affleck believes too much in his film’s inherent superiority to the fake film not being made in Tehran. When Argo ends, we are led to believe that the Reaganite restoration of American power in the 1980s led toward the resurgence of Hollywood that Affleck’s film itself represents. The filmmaker within the film—producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin)—rejects the connection between the screenplay “Argo” and Jason’s mythical ship, instead inventing a crude joke, “Argo fuck yourself.” Alas, by turning this unfunny joke into the film’s mantra, repeated by make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Affleck’s CIA agent, the film ends up telling the rest of the world to do just that, in the face of American political, and Hollywood storytelling, power.

– Walter Metz