'Argo' and the Orientalist Problem

Let's get the basics out of the way first. Argo, the third directorial effort by Ben Affleck (and who ever would have thought that I would find myself in a position to type that sentence without simultaneously drawing a razor over the soft, inviting flesh of my under-wrist), is a very good movie. Affleck, despite a singularly uninspiring output as an actor (more on that later) has by some odd twist of fate become the go-to guy for mid-scale, modestly-budgeted adult studio movies (he's kind of like Clint Eastwood if Clint Eastwood had directed a good movie in the last decade).

The film tells the admittedly incredible true story of the covert CIA operation that rescued six U.S. diplomats who escaped their own embassy - raided in a post-revolutionary furor by a citizenry that demanded the extradition of their deposed Shah so that they could enact justice upon him themselves - and received a sort of unofficial sanctuary from the Canadian ambassador, hiding in crawlspaces and fearing their imminent discovery and possible subsequent execution. Posing as the Canadian Producer of a phony Hollywood science fiction epic that was based off of a real script, funded and developed by the State Department, Tony Mendez [1.]  (a miscast Affleck - Ben Affleck the director will truly soar as a filmmaker once he cuts ties with Ben Affleck the leading man) flies into Iran and, in a Hail Mary plan to bring the stranded Americans home safely, assigns them new identities so that they can fly back out with him under the guise of his advance-scouting production department. It's a truly riveting story, suspense mounting as Mendez's charges (mostly nerdy diplomats with no experience at covert ops) drill new identities into their brains and walk the tightrope of sneaking their way past what is presented as a bloodthirsty and trigger happy Iranian military guard.

And therein lies the problem. While the film boasts an all star roster of a cast (excluding Affleck. Sorry, Ben) [2.] and is written and edited with a care for pacing that makes it, on the surface, one of the most thrilling and engaging pictures of the year, it ultimately ends up being a satisfying, if somewhat hollow, experience, much like eating an entire bag of tortilla chips only to find yourself still hungry afterwards (I assume). Part of that is due to the fact that it's all surface. There's really no emotional connection to any of the characters. The imperiled diplomats, while all well-performed by the actors playing them, (Affleck shoots many of his scenes with what comes across as a loose, improvisatory style that allows for very naturalistic performances), are never really drawn as characters and the audience has no real reason to care about their fate other than because they're white Americans (I'll get to this, I promise). The premise of normal people having to engage in such high-level cloak-and-daggery is very compelling (what would be the psychological impact, for example, of having to learn in a matter of days a completely new identity so innately that you couldn't hesitate to divulge in a natural way any and all fabricated facts about your new self, lest you be discovered as a fraud and summarily arrested and possibly exterminated), yet the film deals with it in the briefest manner possible in order to keep the story moving as fast as possible, a sacrifice to the mechanics of Hollywood structure. Affleck has a couple of melancholy scenes and monologues to show us his estranged relationship with his only son (Mendez is introduced at the end of a shot that tracks over an apartment floor littered with empty beer cans and fast food wrappers, so we know exactly what we're in for), but none of it ever feels like anything other than lip service to standard uplifting life-based thriller tropes (the end of Mendez's personal arc, for instance, feels entirely perfunctory and unearned). All and all it's very solid, if superficial, mainstream storytelling.

The superficiality of which unfortunately and noticeably extends in excess over every single one of the film's Iranian characters and extras. It's a delicate balancing act, because the film is trying to create a subjective sense of the fear that the American protagonists are experiencing; if you were holed up in a crawl space within a country whose national mandate had just flipped violently over to "kill anything even remotely American," you would be likely to see anyone with a thick dark beard as a flailing-tongued radical and potential decapitator. Yet just because those under siege can't quite afford the luxury of essaying an even-handed perspective towards their would-be executioners does not mean that the film should get off the hook for being unwilling to do so. Every Iranian character in the film comes across as either a hooting, aboriginal menace, a leering and distrustful bureaucratic stooge, or as a complete dope. Yes, effigies were burned in the street; yes, women in hijabs rode around in jeeps with semi-automatic weapons; and yes, children were made to spend all hours of the day reassembling shredded embassy documents in order to discover any trace of the identity of the missing six staffers. Yet without the proper context to understand why the Iranian people are in such a lather, this comes across as one-dimensional movie villain behavior, no matter how many real pictures the movie displays in the credits in order to convince us of the veracity of its dramatizations. It is a fundamental tenet of film-making that the more relatable and human your antagonists are, the more effective they are, and so if nothing else then on a basic narrative level the movie undercuts its own dramatic potential by under-serving the humanity of it's villains (and the mere fact that I am able to refer to them as villains is as concise a summation of the problem as I am likely to find).

I expect Argo to be a great success. It rose to the top of the box office charts for the first time on its third week of release, and it should have long legs and be a crowd-pleasing draw well into the winter. And it's not wholly undeserving of its success. I merely wish that the film had lived up to its potential to be a more nuanced telling of a story that certainly could have gained a lot of value via hindsight from being more than just a celebration of a moment where we as a country did something pretty noble, and perhaps paid at least lip-service to the ways in which the events depicted resonate within and reflect upon today's geopolitical climate.

- cs

[1] Who may or may not be related to the identically-named Letterman cue card holder who has been featured in a number of bits and sketches over the last twenty years and who thus had more of a formative impact on my developing sense of humor than one would think any cue card holder ever could.

[2.] Seriously: John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Philip Baker Hall, Bryan Cranston, and Bob Gunton are merely a few of the great actors that Affleck rounds up. This is a movie in which all of the corners (the supporting cast, the period detail) have been expertly and attentively filled in.