I can’t remember which reviewer or random Internet commenter gave me the impression that director/actor Ben Affleck’s new film Argo was surprisingly funny, or words to that effect. If I could recall their identity, I’d express mild annoyance in their general direction. My general opinion is in lockstep with the theater-going majority who’ve given it a collective thumbs-up and touted it as a likely nominee at next year’s Academy Awards in some fashion, but for some reason I walked into it expecting something more along the lines of satirical movies-about-movies such as Wag the Dog, Living in Oblivion, or even The Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult. My expectations were a little off-base.
Certainly the film takes its potshots at Hollywood. Affleck is our hero Tony Mendez, a CIA agent assigned to the task of exfiltrating six stranded Americans from Iran during its prime hostage-taking years. His plan: enter the country posing as a filmmaker, build cover identities for the sextet as part of his film crew, and hustle them out of the country via commercial airline. Phase One of his plan enlists John Goodman as an Oscar-winning makeup artist, who in turn recruits Alan Arkin as a longtime director. The three of them create a fake production company, purchase a space-opera script in turnaround for chump change, hire a storyboard artist, and spend CIA dollars on a lavish pre-production advertising campaign and press-party announcing their fake intent to pretend to rip off Star Wars. Goodman and Arkin have all the best scenes as old friends who know the eccentricities of their surroundings all too well as they push their faux-flick Argo upon an audience that will never see a frame of it.
The moviemaking scenes comprise a minority portion of the running time. They’re prefaced with a jolting reenactment of the day the American embassy fell, and surrounded by a subdued political thriller whose searing images of religious conflict aren’t too far removed from the present-day future thirty years hence. The era and situation are rife with all manner of tension and discomfort. The claustrophobia and paranoid isolation of the refugees, forced to hide out for months at the Canadian ambassador’s place. The monotonous grind of the child laborers tasked to reconstruct mountains of shredded American documents. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s loyal followers, furious in their yearning to hold the Shah accountable for acts against Iran in general and Allah in particular. The tumult of an Iranian bazaar, no good place for Westerners. Even Mendez has personal struggles off the job, as he does his best to be a generous non-custodial father when time allows between covert ops.
All of this dovetails serendipitously in the final sequences involving airport security issues, cumbersome red tape, split-second timing, Bryan Cranston shouting at people, Kyle Chandler clogging up the works through force of smugness, and those seemingly futile Argo storyboards, unwittingly chronicling a sci-fi allegory of the Iranian revolution that connects with a command audience at just the right dangerous crossroads.
I’ll be curious to see what sort of attention it garners during this winter’s awards nomination processes. I just wish I hadn’t entered into it with the unjustified mindset that the humor at Hollywood’s expense would be a more pervasive presence, like a Kevin Smith film with a larger budget. In retrospect I’m pleased it wasn’t, and richer for the experience.
Two final notes, in keeping with past movie entries:
1. I caught no veterans from The Wire among the cast, but Buffy/Angel fans should refrain from blinking or else miss a literal three-second cameo from Tom Lenk (Andrew!) as one of several suckered entertainment reporters.
2. The end credits have no scene at the very, very end, but I recommend sticking around through the extras in the first half. Cast photos are juxtaposed with copies of their real-life counterparts’ real-life fake IDs. Several key scenes are juxtaposed with the period-specific photos that inspired them. And the entire movie is capped with a brand new soundbite from a certain erstwhile Commander-in-Chief about this previously undisclosed moment in his administration’s beleaguered history.