As you probably know if you have come across this space before, I’ve been anxious to see Argo for a very, very long time. This is partly because of Affleck’s two previous films, his growing stature as a capable director of adult dramas, and constant chatter about Argo being one of the frontrunners for this year’s Oscar race since its Telluride-Toronto premiere. But more importantly, as I’ve detailed here, I was dreading the film as an Iranian.
For the progressives in my generation, the attack on the American embassy remains one of the darkest, most indefensible moments of our history. Hearing about these events being prepared for a silver screen treatment in a major Hollywood film - no matter how smart and sensitive the talent behind it - automatically made me suspicious that the potential portrayal of some Americans as patriotic heroes and others as victims would inevitably lead to the vilification of Iranians. Irrespective of my personal and political opinion on the matter – the attack on the embassy is an absolute travesty; there’s no way around it – this is just one of those things I wish no one would ever care enough to make a film about. But alas, there is a film, and a very high-profile one at that. Having now watched it though, I’m equally surprised, disappointed and relieved about how politically toothless it is. Not that Argo is a bad film. It isn’t, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it takes the complicated story of one of the most defining chapters in the relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East and uses it as backdrop for a thriller – a superbly crafted, intensely exciting thriller – that doesn’t explore the rich world of potential at its disposal.
If you’re unfamiliar with the historical background of the story – the film makes an oversimplified attempt at explaining it in the very beginning – the hostage crisis began after extremist Islamist right-wingers – which, to be fair to the film’s portrayal of Iranians, comprised a much, much larger proportion of the population then than it does now – raided the American embassy following the American government’s decision to give asylum to the exiled Iranian Shah for treatment on his cancer. This is at least partially the reason for the attack, though the underlying motives are much more intricate and had been brewing in the society for 30 years. But the film isn’t interested in any of that. It actually isn’t interested in the hostages at all. What the story is invested in is the six Americans who fled the embassy through its backdoor during the occupation and sought refuge in the residence of Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador in Tehran. The titular ‘Argo’ is a fake science fiction film for which Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) flies to Iran to scout locations. In the process, he’s hoping to pass the six Americans as the Canadian crew of his film and fly them out of the country with fake documents.
This all sounds like a great setup for a thriller and Affleck really knows how to use it. The problem is, he never aspires to make anything more substantial than a thriller. Ideally, the burden that the festival echo chamber has put on the film’s shoulders shouldn’t cloud anyone’s judgement, but it’s a bit baffling that so much praise has been heaped on a film that, while perfectly adept at making the audience sit on the edge of their seat for long stretches of the runtime, completely shies away from studying the subtext. We learn, for instance, that the merchants in Tehran’s grand Bazaar have a completely different reaction to meeting the Americans from the Iranian woman who works for the Canadian embassy, but we’re never given any context about the root of either their violence or her sympathy. You’d be forgiven for wondering why the hostage crisis ended months after the Shah’s death if the reason for the raid was Shah’s asylum in the U.S. in the first place, or why the Carter administration risked the lives of so many American citizens to gain so little. Affleck’s use of the hostage crisis as the backdrop for his film resembles, ironically enough, the sci-fi Argo’s use of Iran as “the exotic orient.” Tehran is as relevant to this story as Dubai is to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. The causes and the international implications of the crisis are left almost completely unexplored. And the lack of insight is a real shame, because Affleck and his team, at least on a superficial level, exhibit an excellent knowledge of the period.
I don’t believe I have ever seen a film, even an Iranian one, with such finely crafted period details. It’s astonishing because, understandably, Argo could not have been filmed in Iran, so Istanbul is used as a stand-in for Tehran, but you can’t tell the difference. With the exception of a couple of frames, even I couldn’t have guessed it wasn't filmed in Tehran, and I lived there for nearly two decades! There are a couple of actors who clearly and inexplicably speak Farsi with an Afghan accent, but that’s an incredibly minor complaint for a film that nails everything from the costumes to the architecture, from the mottos to the banners, and most significantly, the general sense of panic, chaos and hostility that hung in the air for many years in post-revolution Iran and all the way through the Iraq war.
Lest you think I’ve given that ‘B’ rating to Argo for merely getting the setting right, let me stress that as a thriller, it achieves what it aims for and then some. Affleck is working in the same territory here as he did in The Town, both in creating hair-raising intensity without resorting to post-Bourne shaky cameras and rapid cuts, and in bringing out the best in his cast, which is stellar across the board. At its best – and by that I mean in sequences like the seamlessly staged Bazaar visit - Argo is tense, cohesive and expertly executed. It’s only because it doesn’t strive for anything beyond a strong, but conventional thriller that it leaves me a bit cold.