It’s quite possible that come February, Ben Affleck will join a weirdly exclusive club whose members include Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner. No matter what you think of Braveheart or Dances with Wolves, both are films directed by and starring popular actors, and both are Best Picture Oscar winners.
I don’t believe that Argo, Affleck’s new movie, is necessarily the best film of the year, but it is thoroughly entertaining, and, to date, it’s the year’s best awards movie, a rousing thriller that’ll please people across the political spectrum. Republicans and Democrats may not agree on much, but everyone thinks that the Americans who were taken hostage in Iran in 1979 got a pretty raw deal.
Yes, Argo takes place way back when this whole mess with Iran started, amid an incident that rivals the fall of the Berlin Wall when it comes to the most important events in the second half of the 20th century.
You should know this already, but, just in case, allow me to drop some history: In 1979, Islamic revolutionaries took over Iran, deposing the Shah, who was a longtime American puppet. He made his way to the United States, and when Jimmy Carter’s administration wouldn’t return him for trial and execution, massive crowds stormed the American embassy and took everyone there hostage. Well, almost everyone. In the confusion, six Americans made their way onto the street and were eventually taken in and hidden by the Canadian ambassador. Several months later, CIA operative Tony Mendez teamed up with Hollywood special-effects man John Chambers—who won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes—to concoct a completely phony sci-fi movie called “Argo.” Mendez then went into Iran and smuggled the six out via a commercial flight by passing them off as a Canadian film crew scouting locations.
Yeah, that’s an absolutely terrific idea for a movie. Despite still needing to appear without a shirt in his films, Ben Affleck’s work has matured greatly since he moved behind the camera. He plays Mendez as an exhausted but brilliant tactician, and, as a director, he’s created an opening sequence that’s absolutely harrowing. Screenwriter Chris Terrio, who adapted the film from a 2007 magazine story written after details of the operation were declassified, ratchets up the tension with events that likely didn’t happen but nonetheless make for great storytelling.
Was the entire operation canceled the night before it was supposed to go down? Was the American who distrusted Mendez the most ultimately responsible for convincing the Republican Guard in Iran that their fake identities were real? Were there armed guys speeding after the airplane as it took off? Uh, no. But that’s OK. Argo isn’t intended to be a true story. If you can divorce your experience from what really happened, Argo triumphs, because it’s also a snarky little love letter to Hollywood, turning Tinseltown into a lovable den of lies that manages to come to its country’s aid when it’s needed.
John Goodman plays Chambers, but the best lines go to Alan Arkin, who plays the fictional Lester Siegel, the oldtime director also brought in on the plot. Chambers and Siegel go on and on about how the movie business is almost total bullshit, but it’s exactly that bullshit that allows them to collaborate with the CIA (and the Canadian government, which went above and beyond to ensure that the six Americans were kept safe and smuggled out).
The principles that Affleck and Terrio use to tell their story are conventional, but there’s a reason we fall for conventional storytelling. Because Argo is about Iran, you’ll be tempted to think it’s timely, or that Affleck is saying something profound about the Middle East. It’s not, and he isn’t. But Argo never purports to be anything more than it is, a Hollywood picture telling a good story. It may be more Hollywood than the story itself, but that’s Hollywood, after all.