A high tech thriller with plenty of tech and not enough thrills.
Ben Affleck's "Argo" (2012) is a unique specimen. On the one hand, it is an exciting, suspenseful rescue story. It is his best film, though as a central character he seems to keep directing himself as a mostly expressionless central character. It is, without doubt, thrilling from start to finish. On the other hand, it is a crass cheerleading of ethnocentrism, recalling Menahem Golan's "The Delta Force" (1986). As I watched "Argo," part of me was absorbed in the suspense, as though I was wide eyed, with my hand covering my open mouth. Another part of me was thinking that the timing of its release was a bit too perfect, as though I was scratching my head, thinking "Seriously? You're stooping that low?" Still, the film seems to even take that point as a subtle comment about global cinema culture.
This film takes place at the end of 1979, during the Iranian Revolution. Leading up to this moment, the film reminds us that in the 1950s, the Iranians democratically elect Mohammad Mosaddegh. One of his most notable moves (according to the film) was nationalizing the Oil Industry, taking control away from the British agency (which, by the way, later became BP). In response, we overthrew him, placing the Shah Reza Pahlavi into power. The Shah of Iran, our ally, uses his SAVAK (his secret police) to launch a reign of terror across the Iranian cities and heartlands, while culturally seeking to extricate from Iran any traditional (i.e. Islamic) traces. He forcefully moves the population toward secular, Western forms, which would probably not be such a problem, considering that the Iranians elected Mosaddegh as a secularist. But, the Shah's approach was to impose the cultural shift apparently by brutal force. In the process, and with the preaching of the Ayatollah Khomeini (the film makes no mention of such brilliant godfathers of the Iranian Revolution as Ali Shariati), the Iranians overthrow the Shah.
We remember that 52 American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran during the latter stages of the Revolution. What we did not know is that six Americans escaped from the American embassy, finding their refuge among the Canadians. Back in America, the State Department and CIA are hatching a rescue plan. We meet Tony Mendez (Affleck) who crafts a plot to enlist Hollywood filmmakers to pretend to produce a science fiction film in Iran, hoping to cash in on the success of Star Wars. Affleck will deliver false Canadian filmmaker identities to the six Americans, take them on a bogus scouting tour through Tehran, and return them to safety back in Canada. The story is so preposterous that it can only be true, and apparently, it is, right down to the droopy hair, the mustaches and the camera angles. The strange thing about the film is that we don't seem to care about the 52 hostages nearly as much as we care about these six people.
Still, the story works because every single step has an obstacle that seems organic and plausible. Ron Howard's "Apollo 13" (1995) was thrilling all the way to its completion, even though we knew the ending. Likewise, this film's conclusion is known, yet it we are directed through suspense all the way until the final sigh. The plot dominates the film, while contrasting the Hollywood circus with its very vivid characters against the serious Iranian revolution with its anonymous protestors, further contrasting them with the bureaucratic processes of American intelligence. On the one hand, we're watching a film about clowns dragged into politics, recalling Levinson's "Wag the Dog" (1997). On the other hand, we're watching the world's first televised revolution, preceding the Arab Spring by over twenty years, and preceding the falls of the USSR and the Berlin Wall as well as the protests in Tiananmen Square each by a decade.
This film, over the top in making sure we know we are in its period, takes me back to 1979. Among other things, Wikipedia reminds me that in 1979 we watched the beginnings of the 1980 American presidential campaign, the election of Margaret Thatcher, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Irish Republican Army bombings and killings, peace treaty between the Egyptians and Israelis, the ascent of Saddam Hussein, and most of all, this revolution. This film brought back memories of my childhood, when I was a grade schooler, first learning the terms "Muslim fanatic" and "Muslim terrorist" in grade school itself, while at home watching the Ayatollah Khomeini presented on television as this always seated, always frowning, always turbaned, bearded, silent ghost hovering around our foreign policy. In the international scene, we did not realize that we saw the seeds of today's world. What seeds, then, are we watching now? And, for my readers: Wikipedia also reminds me that 1979 saw the release of one "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," which was not the best movie of its series.
It is interesting that the film finds its release just a month after the death of our ambassador in Libya. It makes me think that hostage-taking that once seemed to be so commonplace, now seems so far behind us, being overtaken in technique by swift, vicious murder. Likewise, it was unthinkable that we would ever support torture, though it has become part of our methods of interrogation, Meanwhile our airports - the ultimate symbols of our aspirations of a free society - have become checkpoints.
But, more than that, the release of the film fits a bit too neatly into our rush to war on Iran. It becomes easy to promote war when you present the "enemy" as anonymous, furious villains.
I was expecting a film whose politics would be speaking against the war. I remember that during the release of Phil Alden Robinson's "The Sum Of All Fears," Affleck toured the press circuits criticizing anti-Arab sentiments in our society. Of course, that film was released in 2002, less than a year after 9/11, and because of those events, the criminals were changed from Arab Muslims to neo-Nazis. And, further, this is a film produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov (along with Affleck), whose films tend to be very far to the Left. Thus, I was expecting something similar in "Argo," trying to draw our attention away from the usual stereotypical depictions of Iranians and Muslims into something far more complex. That did not happen. Not even close. The infamous "Not Without My Daughter" (1991) which has almost permanently, wrongly informed our view of Iranians as savage wife beaters, had more significant sympathetic Iranian characters than did this film. This film reminded me of "Delta Force," also a cheerleading American story of a mission to save hostages from savage Middle-easterners. From the moment Affleck appears on screen with his long hair and beard he summons Chuck Norris. And, to continue with the cheerleading, that short speech that we hear over the closing credits really had me scratching my head, thinking, "Seriously?"
Now, the goal is not to dictate Affleck's or his film's politics. Politics aside, this is a great thriller. But, I am troubled when a film with its level of firepower in front of and behind the camera falls into all the usual traps of stereotyping. I began wondering if Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah got together to bankroll this movie to help the rush toward war.
The point is that some films try to massage their stereotyping by presenting sympathy or pseudo-balance by including token characters among the heroes (against the terrorists). In James Cameron's, "True Lies" (1994) that character was, incidentally, played by Grant Heslov. In Edward Zwick's "The Siege" (1998), that character was played by the great Tony Shalhoub. The only such character in this film is a mostly quiet, mostly irrelevant housekeeper. Removing her from the story removes a small amount of tension. Aside from her, can you name any of the Iranian characters in this film, except for the Ayatollah Khomeini?
Other times, films present pseudo-balance by showing that we (Americans) are savage too. In Peter Berg's "The Kingdom" (2007), our soldiers repeat the same "We're gonna kill'em all" lines that the terrorists do. That then makes it easier for the filmmakers to show us entire towns in the film that are armed with trigger-happy residents. In Spielberg's "Munich" (2005), Israeli soldiers are shown as killers (with dart guns especially) in between scenes of huge explosions and very graphic point-blank murders by Palestinians. Following suit, this film shows footage of Americans and Vietnam veterans violently beating Iranian Americans. This is all the usual illusion of moral equivalency, masking that usual narrative that we are civilized, and they are savages. The film, when it opens charting our overthrow of the democratically elected Mosaddegh, it presents the coup not through a thread of political intrigue. No, instead, it shows us the event in harmless storyboard animation. Imagine if the scenes featuring Iranians with guns, or Iranians in jeeps plowing through fences were also shown via animation.
These methods, then, are nothing more than pseudo-attempts at balance, because when we watch these films, we regard that savage behavior by our people as the exception to our norm. When we watch the footage of the American young men beating up the Iranian, the first thing that comes to mind is that those punks are Rednecks, not normal Americans. In contrast, when nearly every speaking Iranian character seems to possess a gun, and if not that, then at least a determined vendetta to kill Americans, and if not that, then at least a swarthy frown, it is hard to consider that as anything except the norm.
So, in defense of Affleck, I have to ask if we are watching something of Cinéma vérité? In a film like this, it might be most appropriate not to make any fake, politically correct attempts at sympathy, and to just tell the story. Or, maybe, through his depictions of Iranians, he is focusing on mood, rather than characterizations.
But, consider that we see the usual mobs of anonymous brown people. Here, they are protesters. They are men shouting "azaadi!" They look like zombies with beards rushing to drink American blood. Consider how different that moment would be if the film translated the shouts of "azaadi!" as "Freedom!" along with translations of everything else being said, including the anti-American comments.
Or, consider that we take a short trip through the open market. For some reason, most every American film depicting the Middle East shows us the crowded open market. And, what happens in this market: our characters get surrounded by men who are on the verge of bursting with fury when they see White people. That moment gets especially strange because the anger seems to get ignited not by the perceived presence of Americans, but by some story about the Shah's henchmen. Again, People of Color are so frequently presented as being on the verge of fury.
Or, consider how many times the Iranian Revolutionary guards recall the Keystone cops. The difference is that they are serious, yet are still mostly incompetent, always half a step behind all the action.
It is the same problem of myopia that we face when we watch films featuring Africa and Africans. Inevitably, many of the Africans will be dressed in sunglasses, fatigues, berets and Kalashnikovs. While the plots of American movies about the Middle East feature terrorism, nearly every Western film that features an African plot will have a subplot about HIV. Further, we would think, that from watching Western films about Africa, that Africa is a giant mix of jungles and shantytowns, lacking any large cities.
And, on that note, however, there is one wonderful, unique technique that "Argo" takes in depicting Iran. Normally, when we imagine Iran, we imagine it as a drab, dingy, crowded, mega-village. Here, Tehran is shown as a giant metropolis sitting at the base of a gorgeous mountain range. Each of those shots is just breathtaking, especially for this viewer, raised in the plains of Illinois. Each of those shots made me want to visit Iran, just to stare at those mountains.
But "Argo" rather subtly, very consciously calls on us to wrestle with another point: the power of movies and television. The film's closing credits show us shots of the actors and actresses side by side with photos of the actual people they portray. At first, it seems as though the filmmakers are showing us how well they copied reality. But, the film's final scene pans slowly across a little boy's collection of Star Wars figures. That I recognized that the Jawa was mislabeled as "Sand People," and that I recognized that Boba Fett was not yet released at the time of the movie is one problem of my own. But, the movie raises the question about the impact that movies have on our real world lives in two ways.
First, it raises the question about the revolution itself. This revolution was very much a television revolution. Iranian women with microphones spoke to cameras about American Imperialism in a way that we had never seen before, by anyone. I believe Affleck's character asks if some of the drama is being staged for the camera. There is even a scene where hooded prisoners are brought into a room, and then shot at close range, but it sounds as though the guns did not shoot any bullets. In contrast, in another scene, an Iranian is killed with a very loud gun that shook me in my seat. So, as much as I am complaining that the Iranians are mostly depicted as savages, I wonder if the film is making the point that the Iranian revolutionaries themselves chose to stage their own savagery in the revolution for full effect. Of course, the later reality of the Iranian police includes a brutal reality, but the question here is about the televised revolution.
Second, there is that magic of movies that seems to capture almost all of us. It is not just the magic of watching a wonderful story on the giant flat screen. It is not just the magic of sitting eagerly through all those teasers and trailers that promise hope for the future. It is not just the magic of celebrity, even though many of us know enough of celebrity to know that makeup and beauty do not make up for what is often personal, social ineptitude. There is just that magic about movies that captures so many of us in every corner of the globe. So, perhaps the closing credits are telling us that art imitates life, yet life sometimes pretends to be art.
So, at one level, this is an exciting escape movie. At another level, it is a subtle though at times bothersome comment on the magic and power of cinema.
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One of the most important and dazzlingly original works by Coppola comes to Criterion Blu-ray.