Argo (2012), dir. Ben Affleck
Is Ben Affleck an auteur in the making, or a ready-made provocateur? The directorial style he assumed for Argo is far too referential to ever achieve auteur status; the film’s distortion of history, however and subtle antagonistic nature may have already earned him the notoriety of the latter label.
I can admit to having nearly been fooled into perceiving what kind of film Argo actually is. For those not in the know, Argo is a historical drama chronicling the exfiltration of six American diplomats following the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries. “Argo” is the name of the dummy Hollywood sci-fi film project that was used as a front for the covert exfiltration of the six diplomats, who narrowly escaped the raid at the embassy and were then secretly harbored by the Canadian ambassador to Iran. At first I was charmed by the film’s meticulous art direction. I find that 1970s and ‘80s period films are some of the most difficult to make convincing. Argo gets it just right, from the wardrobe selection to the props, down to the film’s grainy appearance (a film camera was used, thankfully, and not a ghastly digital one). They even used a circa 1970s Warner Brothers logo preceding the opening credits—how’s that for authenticity? One cannot help but appreciate the keen eye for detail put into the production of this film. Once the initial enchantment wore off however, I began to ask myself certain questions. One, why did they select this story to adapt to film? As far as clandestine governmental operations go, this one isn’t wholly exciting, hence the conspicuous ‘Hollywood’ touches here and there to add excitement and suspense, when in the reality of the story there was none. Two, why are the Iranians presented to us in such a bad light? In Argo’s brief introduction in which Iran’s recent history is summarized, we are told of how Western forces deposed the nationally elected leader responsible for nationalizing Iran’s oil refineries, stripping them away from British and US holders, and in turn imposing upon the Iranian people their own hand-picked Shah, an opulent and garish, yet cruel leader. Anyone with basic cognition should be able to understand the Iranians’ hostility, especially after the well-known atrocities that ensued the deposition. In Argo there is no effort made to sympathize with the Iranians’ plight. Rather, they are treated much in the same way as they are in the current media—a fanatical, barbarous mob of anti-Americans, the ‘enemy’ in another word. Given the current tensions with Iran it seems very antagonistic to produce a film of this sort, especially with war drums beating in both Tel Aviv and Washington. It was the answer to those questions I asked myself that made me realize that Argo, behind the lavish production and superb acting is in essence a propaganda film.
I have no problem with propaganda films, after-the-fact, that is. Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky are both excellent examples of propaganda filmmaking that is also good filmmaking. Argo too will fall into that category, when it becomes less incendiary (though I fear it wasn’t viewed as being incendiary enough upon its release). And there are other incendiary features to this film in addition to the anti-Iran undertones. I’ve already been subjected to the furor of my Canadian friends who have informed me of the flagrant mitigation of Canadian involvement in the whole “Argo” operation. In reality, the sci-fi film caper was almost entirely a Canadian conception, and not a CIA one as shown in Argo.
Politics aside, I can still assign Argo a ‘good’ rating. From a technical standpoint it is very well made. And it boasts some very fine acting besides (Alan Arkin in particular, though he seems to be getting typecast as a grouchy old man these days). Is Argo good enough to have won best picture at the Academy Awards? I don’t think so, and that worries me given the anti-Iran sentiments that are rife in Hollywood. So with that I can say enjoy Argo for what it is, but do so with a conscientious mind.