It tells the true story of some imaginative derring-do on the part of a brilliant and unorthodox CIA agent called Tony Mendez. This is a watchable, enjoyable film, with some hilarious and nail-biting moments, but it sets its face disconcertingly against satire and mischief with a final lurch into schmaltzy, liberal-patriot piety. It is as if The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin, in his most solemn mood, had suddenly taken over screenwriting duties for the final 10 minutes.
The movie is based on Mendez’s own testimony. As with all spies’ tales we’re entitled to our pinch of salt, but his story is just so incredible it compels belief: a startling piece of declassified secret history about a CIA-sponsored bogus film. The moral might be that there’s no business like show business and no show business like the movie business — and you can pretty much rely on everyone uncritically kowtowing to its glamour and prestige.
In 1979, six American officials managed to scramble out of the United States embassy in Tehran, just as it was overrun by a pro-Ayatollah mob who held the remaining personnel hostage: an ordeal for them and for Jimmy Carter, whose presidency bled to death in the ensuing media furore. The six escapers holed up in secret at the Canadian ambassador’s residence; back at CIA headquarters, the crisis was handled by Mendez, the agency’s top “exfil” guy — an expert in “exfiltration”, or getting Americans out of enemy territory. He is played by Affleck himself in a stolid, unflashy performance: a single shirtless moment is his only self-indulgence.
Mendez is shown persuading his superiors to bankroll a crazy but inspired scheme: he will fly into Iran with seven fake Canadian passports — one for him and one each for his six compatriots — claiming to be a Canadian movie producer, scouting locations for a new science-fiction thriller called Argo.
The plan is that these terrified prisoners will wander brazenly around with him and some Iranian culture ministry officials, posing as producers and cinemato-graphers, pretending to size up the scenery through letterboxed fingers and so on, and then they all go home together on a Swissair flight.
Mendez makes it look more real than real by getting all the right documentation and hiring real backers, including a Hollywood make-up technician (John Goodman) and a veteran mogul (Alan Arkin). They stage a real reading of a complete, preposterous script in a Los Angeles hotel, duly reported on by Variety. (Perhaps Canadian producers would be less likely to annoy the Iranians, but the point is they need the Hollywood brand to make it all look good.) In short, they’re doing everything that real producers would do in making a real movie. The movie is never going to get made, but so what? That happens all the time. What can go wrong?
Argo is partly based on a Wired magazine article titled “The great escape”, after the 1963 movie about a World War II escape attempt, and that film is a potent influence. Audiences will be waiting for an equivalent of that awful moment when the cunning German says “Good luck!” in English to Gordon Jackson and without thinking he says “Thank you!” It also feels like a postmodern spin on pictures such as The Producers and Wag the Dog, with practitioners of the showbiz black arts creating tinselly illusions. Playing the wisecracking mogul, Arkin surely drew on Dustin Hoffman’s legendary impersonation of Robert Evans and the scene showing his pile of possible screenplays surely alludes to the script ordeal of Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock.
Part of what makes this head-spinning story believable is the fact that it pans out in an oddly uncomplicated way. If it was fiction, there would be more tense encounters with English-speaking Iranian officials, and they would be more suspicious and knowledgeable. And of course, if it was fiction, the movie Argo would actually get made and be a massive hit in Iran.
The emphasis turns out to be rather different, leading to what I felt was a tonal oddity: a gobsmackingly bizarre adventure that finally has to be rescued from irony and subversion and treated with uplifting solemnity, as if to repudiate any sense that what we have been watching is a comedy. But a comedy is basically what Argo is, and a good one. — © Guardian News & Media 2013