A tense angry mob sequence at the beginning of Argo, a “real life” story brought to the screen by director and star Ben Affleck, depicts the American embassy in Iran under attack from militants circa 1979. Staff inside respond to the violent brouhaha by madly shredding and burning documents. Six manage to escape and take shelter in the home of a Canadian ambassador.
Back in the USA, bearded CIA “exfiltration” officer Tony Mendez (Affleck) concocts a ridiculous plan to bundle them out of the country. They will pretend to be a Canadian team of filmmakers scouting locations for a dodgy science fiction movie inspired by Planet of the Apes.
To give the ruse extra cred, they enlist the services of a Hollywood makeup artist (John Goodman) and a film producer (Alan Arkin). Mendez flies over and the embassy staff are suddenly thrust into the role of actors. They must remember invented pasts and backstories in preparation for a grilling at the airport (which, of course, is reserved for the final act, a cavalcade of ‘at the last minute’ dramatic contrivances). There’s even a scene reminiscent of a script reading/character workshop session.
If Affleck was even vaguely conscious or interested in the peculiar reality/fiction crossovers apparent in this scenario — that it involves actors playing characters who are forced into the role of actors, while Affleck, the film’s director, plays a character who, pretending to be a producer, ‘directs’ their ‘performances’ — he doesn’t show it. There is no intellectual correlation between the two schools of thought.
Ordinarily this might not have registered as a problem but in a film as mercilessly mis-representative as this, with about as much fidelity to fact as a Casey Affleck-directed mockumentary starring Chopper Read as a criminal-cum-landscape artist, the problems with not drawing a connection between form and content become manifest and two-fold because: a) it is, at least in a historical perspective, a nonsense product and b) it’s about people delivering a nonsense product. The salt is the wound is that Affleck underlines the ridiculousness of one and takes the other with to-the-grave seriousness.
Affleck’s chops as a filmmaker were handsomely demonstrated in 2007’s Gone Baby Gone (less so in his self-obsessed The Town ) and in Argo he has fashioned an entertaining picture. Nothing spectacular to write home about but certainly a cut-above-average American thriller framed with close, prickly cinematography and intuitive actor-oriented direction.
Scenes of bubbly show biz repartee between John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the make-up artist and producer (“if we’re gonna make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit”) are particularly good — deserving of a full length feature spin-off, or how about a TV mini-series? — and cement the film’s best running gag: the phrase “Argo fuck yourself.”
But Affleck has paraded well beyond dramatic liberties into a thick confetti of parochial myth-making, and it’s disconcerting to see how content he appears to be with trading fact for fiction.
In the entertainment delivery business everybody expects dramatic liberties to be taken. Everybody knows the rhythms required for interesting drama are different to the rhythms of real-life. Everybody knows a Hollywood studio picture is not a hub for level-headed historical representations. The challenge is not to recreate real events, which is impossible, but to find a way to make fiction truthful.
If Affleck had somehow linked Argo’s internal realities with its external context, the correlation could have formed a delicious commentary about a ridiculous Hollywood production about a ridiculous Hollywood production, about a fiction that saves lives in a fiction that celebrates the achievement, and, overlapping it, the transformative powers of cinema to make it all possible and to construct and dismantle its own legends.
The truly sad final twist in Argo may come well after its absurd finale (in the sense that virtually none of it happened), next February, when — if you believe the pundits’ current predictions — Affleck will take home an Oscar for helming an elephantine-sized lie about elephantine-sized lies, a historical film about the powers of fiction to determine real-life in a film that will probably play a key role in rewriting history.
If you thought Ben Affleck was anti-intellectual, and lord knows anybody who sat through Gigli (2003) could hardly think otherwise, perhaps he’s proven himself the opposite. Perhaps he’s a master of a weird kind of Orwellian doublethink, capable of building and dismantling one fictional deception while being oblivious to a far larger deception that contextualises and houses the other, gives it breathing space and meaning plus a poster, a trailer, a flag waving yee-haw for the great US of A…
Or perhaps, when confronted by the part of his brain that asked him to connect the outrageous embellishments of Argo with the outrageous nature of Hollywood itself, he crossed his arms and said “Argo fuck yourself”.
Argo’s Australian theatrical release date: October 25, 2012.