Ben Affleck’s Argo opens by plunging us into 1979 Tehran, recreating the swarming of the American embassy, with most of its staff taken hostage. Six of them managed to slip away, entering the nearby Canadian embassy where they remained hidden for several months, without an apparent exit route. As Argo relates it, a CIA agent called Tony Mendez (played by Affleck himself) devises a plan to enter the country in the guise of a movie producer, pretending to scout locations for a Star Wars rip-off, and to get the six out of the country by casting them as his production team, enabled by fake Canadian passports and other credentials. It’s widely known that the plan worked, so the movie is more about the “how” than the “what,” except that since the movie is all just malarkey, as Joe Biden would say, it’s a fake how.
Sacrificed to thrill
That sounds like it ought to be a deliberate irony, but it’s hard to tell whether Affleck sees any correlation between the flamboyant nonsense of the trashy film within a film, and the less flamboyant but still egregious inventions of Argo itself. Now, you might think I’m referring there to the minor controversy in the Canadian media about how the film portrays Ken Taylor, who was our ambassador in Iran at the time, as basically a bystander to Mendez’ efforts: The Star (which has squeezed three or four stories out of this) breathlessly reported how friends of his who saw the opening “were outraged on Taylor’s behalf…at how much history had been sacrificed to thrill.” Affleck obligingly made contact with Taylor, cut out one of the references that caused particular offense, and added a new postscript reading “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian Embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.” Taylor himself is being amiable about the whole thing.
What’s goofy about all this though is the apparent assumption that Hollywood might typically be expected to concoct a more virtuous mix of “history” and “thrill” – that for instance, the movie’s numerous wild inventions (people putting necessary steps in place literally one second before their absence would cause the whole scheme to collapse, that kind of thing) might be more palatable if Taylor rather than Mendez was the one pushing the buttons. Hollywood has always treated history as a shopping mall from what it plucks whatever it cares for, and if that means scooping up a left shoe without bothering to pick up the right, so be it – if you want to get all stuffy about the facts, call Doris Kearns Goodwin. The details of the “Canadian caper” don’t much matter at this late stage, except insofar as they allow us to honour our past “heroes’ – but that just points to one of the core problems, how we interpret our relationships with the world too much in terms of recognizable protagonists, world-changing events, or simple oppositions. It seems to me Affleck’s real lapse is to have made a film about Iran that’s of no practical aid whatsoever in considering that country’s current place in the world, and what our strategy toward it should be.
I’m referring in particular, of course, to the concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, and the various shades of Israeli and Western response to that. Since Canada recently closed its embassy in Iran and expelled all Iranian diplomats from here, and given the Harper government’s obnoxious swaggering in other matters of foreign affairs, it’s a bit rich to moan about deserving any positive recognition for our global contribution, even for events of three decades ago. But it’ll put us right in the same groove with President Romney, should that nightmarish prospect come to pass – we’ll be right there with the same certainty in our own goodness and supremacy, and the same mixture of hypocrisy and confusion about what that actually entails.
In the same week I saw CTV’s Don Martin fawning over Ken Taylor in an interview, he interviewed former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy about the European Union receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Martin didn’t bother to hide his contempt for the decision, and Axworthy was happy to come along for the ride; a better example of a deserving winner, chirped Martin, would have been Axworthy himself, for his past leadership on landmines. No doubt the EU prize is more than a bit problematic, but then so is the concept of peace; whether or not it’s a conventionally “good” choice, it’s one that looks beyond easy but limited narratives of good people providing incremental value to the world, by biting off a chunk of political, economic and societal revolution that almost no one knows how to properly chew. Serious newsmen might try to help us work our way through that, just as serious filmmakers – contemplating Argo – might be appalled at so much craft and resources invested for such a trivial and transient purpose.
But anyway, if trivial and transient purpose sounds like your thing, but Taken 2 is just a bit too trivial and transient, then Argo (which, regardless of Taylor’s friends, was the runner-up for the People’s Choice Award at this year’s festival) might be the way to go. I just can’t buy into the school of thought that now identifies Ben Affleck (after this, The Town, and Gone Baby Gone) as a major director – the film is well-handled and well-paced, but this only shows that one can learn to be good at “directing” just as at, say, accounting or engineering. The film offers its easiest pleasures during the episodes in Hollywood, where Mendez goes to concoct a suitably plausible surface for his fake project; this bit rolls along, powered by easy digs at the cheesiness of it all, and by money in the bank casting (such as Alan Arkin and John Goodman). I was also gripped by a scene where Mendez and his “team” meet an official in a public bazaar and almost lose control of the situation after a merchant takes exception to being photographed; at that moment the recreation feels intensely real, claustrophobic and threatening. It’s somewhat undermined though when Affleck then cuts to the group driving safely away, simply skipping over what happened in between. So it goes with much in the film.
As the closing credits roll, Affleck juxtaposes shots of the actors, and of some of the scenes, with those of their real-life counterparts, demonstrating how the film scores a pretty good visual correlation throughout. But this again only shows a fidelity to the trivial, as if surfaces were more revealing than depths.