Given its trumped-up imminence, it’s little surprise that Zero Dark Thirty stood as the year’s preeminent political lightning rod. The debate swirling around Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s apparent muddying of the facts of Bush Doctrine American policy proceeded from a certain understanding of that film’s seriousness—of the idea that it was important enough to be saddled with the burden of responsibility.
Weirdly, Ben Affleck’s foreign-policy caper Argo escaped such onerous obligations, its depiction of cavaliering, historically specious C.I.A. antics troublingly understood as light-touch revisionism. There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticism—or film culture more broadly—that the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. (See: the body of critical literature surrounding a toe-headedly obvious, and howlingly enjoyable, film like John Carpenter’s They Live; its cultural resonance magnified not despite, but precisely because of its broadly generic B-movie trappings.) So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures.
The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectively—and, perhaps, self-consciously—passes the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Affleck’s tone-setting meta-gesture, which winkingly acknowledges that this is the movie version of a “declassified true story” (as the movie was obnoxiously marketed), is intentional, it’s undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardly—a cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the film’s veracity come to bear.
Of course, as Affleck repeats to the point of knee-jerkiness in his director’s commentary, the map is demonstrably not the territory, and a film version of Operation Argo (more commonly, per the history books, “the Canadian caper”) cannot absolutely represent the reality of the situation—in which a C.I.A. agent (Affleck) was dispatched to Iran to extract six Americans hiding out in the Canadian ambassador’s house following the seizure of the American embassy by student radicals. Yes, certain things must be collapsed, occluded, inserted, and fundamentally misrepresented in order for Argo to function as a piece of entertainment and not a Wikipedia entry.
But dramatic license can’t excuse the film’s bogus lensing of Iranian radicals as a seething rabble unjustified in its insurgence against American emissaries who helped architect the nation’s backslide into decadent monarchy. (A scene in which the six American hostages, and Affleck, trek across Tehran in a minibus and are assailed by the Iranian protestors, rendered as an indistinguishable tide of generalized hostility, is head-shakingly ludicrous.) Nor can it excuse the film’s depiction of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) as a fretful concierge, dutifully minding the store until the C.I.A. gallops in to save the day.
As a Canadian, I’m perhaps extra sensitive to Argo’s misrepresentation of the nation’s (rather uncharacteristic) brassiness in bearing most of the risk involved in the hostage extraction: housing the escaped Americans for over a year when other consulates turned them away, printing phony Canadian passports, and suffering the brunt of the public-relations snafu when the hostages’ liberation became headline news. But Argo is insufferable in its effort to “declassify” its own specious reality that America was the real hero of the Canadian caper, arriving just in the nick of time to bail out distressed, ineffectual Canada.
Even more than something as grave as Zero Dark Thirty, Argo is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleck’s all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. Add to this a laughably ramped up getaway climax and a bunch of pandering Hollywood in-jokes in place to insist on Argo’s fluffiness and function as just a piece of multiplex entertainment, and Affleck’s crafted (however satisfactorily) 2012’s most tedious piece of Oscar bait.
The disc’s package is first-rate, with the soundtrack capturing the faint rumble of the Iranian revolutionaries, the thwomp of tear-gas canisters, and the overlapping dialogue with precision and clarity. The picture is also excellent, with the hi-def photography casting the standard-def archival footage even further into relief, incidentally placing the film at further reach from its historical basis, with the lo-fi newsreel material gurgling up like repressed material.
The commentary by Ben Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio proves instructive, if only in revealing the director’s loose concept of "authenticity." In one breath, Affleck will assert how fealty was his top concern (this idea is also driven home in the featurette "Argo: Absolute Authenticity"), and in another he’ll explain how countless elements were added in post-production, somewhat undermining the film’s apparent desire to harken back to pared-down political potboilers of the 1970s. Otherwise, the special features work to further declassify the story behind Argo, with former C.I.A. agent Tony Mendez talking at length about his escape plans.
The featurette "Escape from Iran: The Hollywood Option" provides a more thorough examination of the risk the Canadian government assumed in the whole caper, and feels a bit like a response to negative reactions toward the film itself. (Affleck was put under lights after the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival with some, including the real-life Ken Taylor, criticizing the film’s diminution of Canada’s role in the proceedings.) A picture-in-picture "eyewitness account" of the Iranian revolution, as well as interviews with President Jimmy Carter and the actual hostages, are compelling. But they feel similarly compensatory, allowing Affleck to offer something like historical authenticity while preserving his right to the "Hollywood option."
The top-notch packaging reveals Argo for what it really is: less a nail-biting chamber-piece character drama and more a coolly realized, wildly reckless, actioner.