Location Scouting With No Room For Error
It’s funny how in many science fiction films, children’s fantasies, ideas, and many times realities are shot down with such condescending vigor by parents and authorities. Take E.T. or the more recent Super 8, which contain children who testify to the strange and mysterious and who are then mocked and told to get those crazy ideas out of their heads. Argo, directed by Ben Affleck and written by Chris Terrio, pays homage to Hollywood’s power in many ways, but it’s also partly an apology to these portrayed kids to say that sci-fi fantasies can resonate with and rescue more than just ten year-olds.
Affleck also stars in his third directorial film (after Gone Baby Gone and The Town), which in this case has a predetermined outcome. While his previous films are strong, I’ve had problems with his endings, which oftentimes supply characters with an irrational shift in mindset that appears unjustified in the context of their development. Here, we all know the ending. Affleck is CIA agent Tony Mendez who, along with his agency coworkers ( including a strict Bryan Cranston and Chris Messina), sport their best late 70s dos and beards. Affleck has the same subtle characteristics, clothing, and muted temperament as many of the Tinker Tailor spies; luckily, his supporting cast has more spunk and life in them.
Affleck’s usually at the center of attention in his films, even if he doesn’t warrant it. His character again is at the center of the operation, but purposefully, selflessly, he is not the central focus. Instead, he restrains himself to let the 444 days of drama take over in which 52 Americans became hostages to a rioting Tehran crowd. This story focuses on the six that escaped and took refuge in the Canadian Embassy, and the fake movie that helped them flee Iran. Opening expository mixes of archival footage and surprisingly similar reenactments, as seen in the photo comparison credits, give brief history over the dispute that synthesizes into the escalatory mob that stormed the U.S. Embassy.
Mendez is enlisted to the case and shoots down ideas about their escape, refuting one idea about sending in bicycles. His inspiration for the movie ploy occurs while talking to his son over the phone one night, simultaneously watching a “Planet of the Apes” film together. He contacts that film’s makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and schedules a meeting with him and an esteemed, now spun out producer (a zingy Alan Arkin) in LA. Together they create a fake movie production company and pick up a rejected script called “Argo.” With joint expertise, they sell it to the media and put on a public script reading, storyboards, costumes and all.
How hilariously out of place Mendez feels, but this is both a film applauding Hollywood and equivocally calling it out. Just as long as you look like a big shot, aids Chambers, you’ll fit right in, and so Mendez fully commits to “Argo” because he has no other choice, something he reciprocates to the six in hiding when he assigns them fake Canadian identities and responsibilities for the film. Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochraine, Christopher Denham, and Kerry Bishé all play appropriately fearful as they quickly must learn to memorize their new biographies for upcoming interrogation.
I haven’t experienced a political thriller like this in a while. Film writer Jim Emerson writes that suspense works even if you know what’s going to happen. Its truth rings abundantly throughout this film, especially in a scene where Mendez must lead the six through human lodged backstreets to prove they are “location scouting.” Suddenly chaos breaks out, Iranians swarm around these white-skinned film guises and tension is palpable. A similar scene at the airport warrants the same kind of response. Can these guards believe the “film crew,” past their thick mustachioed lips and altered passports?
Affleck captures moments of perfection that then are reemphasized, which sometimes undermine his own intuition and his audience. But no matter, this is a story about Hollywood, and we get an ending that feels like it could be the archetype of every cliché-ridden finale. There is something to be said however about how well it’s plotted out even though most of it never really happened that way, how every mark is hit between different narratives just in the nick of time.
Midway through the film there is a flyover shot of the broken down Hollywood sign when Mendez heads to LA. The H is missing and many letters are ruptured. The irony, and maybe shame, that Argo was a classified mission was the fact that Hollywood was proving why it was still strong. In the following years, it would go on to produce sensationalized, nationalistic films like Rambo and Top Gun, providing an overcompensating catharsis for Americans feeling their country was impotent, fulfilling a chest out militaristic pompousness. Sometimes, however, strength is shown in refinement and calculation, and throughout the crisis, a covert operation relying on the power of storytelling won a battle and didn’t start a war.