Undeniably rousing, but deeply irresponsible, Argo fans the flames surrounding historical events likely to still remain raw in the memory of many viewers. In Ben Affleck's film, the past is present. Unfolding against the backdrop of the 1979 Iranian revolution and the resulting hostage crisis, the film quite clearly aims to draw parallels between that moment of history and the United States's current and increasingly belligerent attitude toward the Islamic Republic, goaded continually on by a bellicose Israeli state.
In telling the at times whimsical, at times heroic true-life story of C.I.A. “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez (Affleck), who engineered a daring rescue of six Americans hiding out in the Canadian embassy in Tehran, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio initially aim for a wider historical picture and a sense of balanced geopolitical understanding. In the largely animated opening sequence, a narrator gives us a quick history lesson which condemns the 1953 C.I.A./British overthrow of democratically elected Iranian president Mohammed Mosaddegh and describes the miserable conditions Iranians endured for decades under the U.S.-backed Shah. Similarly, after the revolution occurs and the militants set about killing any Americans left in the country, a C.I.A. operative admits that the U.S. essentially started the bloodbath by taking out Mosaddegh. Affleck further aims for a sense of moral equivalency by counterpointing Iranian revolutionaries burning the American flag with archival news broadcasts of angry middle-Americans torching the Iranian banner.
But this sense of balance is soon lost and the film becomes an increasingly blinkered tale of the heroic C.I.A. versus the Muslim menace, exactly the narrative that today's hawkish politicians love to propagate. It's astonishing how easily the film is content to give into what critic Jack Shaheen might call Reel Bad Arab syndrome, in which every Iranian face is either filled with hatred or suspicion. Granted, in post-revolutionary Iran, people were indeed filled with anger and hostility toward Americans, but Affleck's decision to portray this sense of fury—quite vividly evoked despite the director's distracting penchant for whip pans and arcing shots—not only seems increasingly misguided in a moment when mainstream outlets like Newsweek run headline stories unhelpfully declaring the phenomenon of “Muslim Rage,” but seems to play exactly into the simplified us-versus-them narrative of the war on terror.
All of which makes the fact that Affleck has crafted what, at least by some standards, has to be considered a first-rate thriller, all the more depressing. Although the narrative builds slowly, the film, which details Mendez's plan to extricate the Americans by flying to Tehran and having the prisoners pose as a film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi B movie, works up to a second half of almost continual tension followed by a truly exhilarating release. As Mendez meets with a gruff director (Alan Arkin) and an expert makeup man (John Goodman) in preparation for the operation, his need for total verisimilitude necessitating the production of an actual script, storyboards, and publicity materials, Argo gets bogged down by indulging in a series of obvious potshots at the Hollywood system. But by the time Mendez gets to Tehran, the film has abandoned its comic pretensions and moved into full-on thriller terrain, a mode that Affleck handles with consummate ease, give or take an eye-bleeding use of shaky-cam.
It all leads up to the inevitable airport sequence whose nail-biting uncertainties as to whether or not the Americans will be able to make their escape before the authorities realize who they are, are aided by a sustained series of cross-cutting that would make D.W. Griffith proud. Perhaps too proud. In The Birth of the Nation, Griffith infamously built tension by juxtaposing shots of “evil” African Americans with glimpses of the “heroic” Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue. The cutting in Affleck's film between menacing Muslims and peaceful white Americans is clearly not on the same level of preposterousness as Griffith's fantastical worldview. After all, Iranian revolutionaries really did call for the death of all Americans. And yet, by placing the image of murderous Middle Easterners front and center in his film, there's little doubt that the effect is to reawaken memories of the last time when anti-Iranian sentiment ran rampant in the United States and to stir up similar feelings at exactly the moment when doing so would be most dangerous. No one would deny the thrill of seeing the Americans affect their daring escape. It's only in retrospect, when we wonder what exactly it is we've been cheering, that the momentary excitement gives way to a bitter reminder of how little the American mindset has changed.