Argo is exactly what a Hollywood film should be. It is well-made, it entertains, it thrills, it has something to offer both explicitly and implicitly, and it even has some name/face recognition. If you are familiar with the source material, great; there’s enough fiction in the film to ensure that while you know where it is going, you won’t be familiar with all the twists and turns on the way there. If you are not familiar with the true story or the books the screenplay is based on, don’t worry, there’s a good catch-up at the beginning of the film that efficiently tells you what you need to know.
What do you need to know? Following the Iranian Revolution, a group of Iranians storms the U.S. Embassy, but six Americans got away. It’s up to Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed) to find a way to get them safely out of the country, and he decides the best way to do that is faking the production of a film (called “Argo”), with himself producing and the six escapees, posing as crew members, scouting Iran as a possible shooting location.
It’s a bit outlandish to be sure, even with its factual basis, but this is all captured in the script, which plausibly explains why the fake movie is the best chance they have while also never letting the silliness get too far away; Argo is very funny at times, and most of the jokes are either on the plan itself or at the expense of Hollywood, where, to paraphrase one character, you can act like a big-shot without having done anything.
Initially, Argo is a bit irresponsible. Complex politics were glossed over and we were thrown into a “The Middle Easterners are bad guys!” scenario. Fortunately, there is a character that goes directly against this grain, and the focus is always on saving the trapped Americans and never on foreign policy or Iran in general. Instead, as Mendez has to jump through more and more hoops, we get a look at the perseverance and dedication necessary to make this stuff happen. It’s also a quiet reminder that the government can do a lot for us without us realizing it (think of it as Affleck’s Election Day notice), but mostly, it plays for fun and entertainment. There is plenty of high-wired suspense, especially toward the end, and even though you know how it’s going to play out, it still manages to be a nail-biter, and it is a great display of what may be Affleck’s best directorial strength: His use of cross-cutting. Argo balances Iran and America throughout, but as it goes on, it becomes CIA, Hollywood, protagonists, antagonists, and more, and they all come to a climax together and Affleck masterfully keeps us engrossed in every one, leaving us on the edge of our seat with every cut but never keeping us far away for long enough to lose that tension. It’s a textbook example of how to create suspense, elongate time, tell a story, and give the audience exactly as much as they need to know.
Thanks in large part because of Affleck’s great direction Argo also functions as reminder of the power of movies. Even those who reject that the film is a celebration of the power of movies in general, it is hard to deny that it is at least a celebration of the power of the belief in movies. Here, even a fake movie saves lives, but the inspiration for the life-saving scheme comes from watching Battle of the Planet of the Apes. Star Wars makes a couple appearances, too, and as these are equated with fictional “Argo,” it is implicitly stated that real movies have the power that we see from real movies like Star Wars; they have a place in the formation of great ideas and life-changing, life-saving actions.
While the message is a bit ideal, the insistence on the power of art even within political environments is an important one, and here Affleck brings that out entirely in the mise-en-scene. There is no hand-holding here. This is visual storytelling wrapped inside an exciting package, and it lends the film all of its power.
Argo’s biggest shortcoming is its script, and Affleck’s performance itself. He portrays Mendez with so much straight-faced intensity that he is the least believable when he is supposed to be the most believable. In the writing, I have already voiced here, and despite its avoidance of anti-Iranian propaganda, Argo does enforce an American carte blanche. Still, with quality subtext and more than a few heart-racing moments, it’s all forgivable.