Argo: Hollywood Myth-Making

Ben Affleck's third directorial outing, Argo, is a remarkably effective and efficient Hollywood concoction based on the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez and his elaborate scheme to get 6 Americans out of Iran during the hostage crisis of 1980.
Opening with a spare and succinct history lesson informing us of Iran's political seesawing over the past 50 years we then are treated to a truly sensational sequence of sustained intensity as the American Embassy in Tehran is overcome by protesters. This event led to the infamous 444 day hostage crisis in which 52 Americans were detained by Iranian militants. Affleck's film is not about those 52 hostages though, but rather it concentrates on the strange and unlikely story of 6 embassy officials who escaped the premises before it was taken and how they ended up fleeing the country.
The bones of this film are undoubtedly true. Tony Mendez did concoct a plan to get the six out of Iran that involved establishing a fake movie production entitled 'Argo' and the CIA did plant false stories in Variety to back up their narrative. Of course, like any good exciting Hollywood film, Argo artificially constructs many hurdles in order to enhance the tension of the film and whilst most of the additions aren't especially objectionable they are worth noting as are the film's subtle undertones of racism that may prove problematic for some.
Many of Argo's tensest sequences involve the Americans wading through crowds of threatening "Arabs" who are painted as generic bloodthirsty mobs that could turn at any moment. Whilst this clearly conveys the subjective perception of the Americans in that given situation it also can’t be denied that Affleck is capitalizing on a very modern phobia of the 'Arab other' that has developed in the West over the last decade. The 'stranger in a strange land' cliché is perhaps leant on a little too often as the claustrophobic tension generated in the audience is essentially rooted in a dangerously xenophobic fear.
Am I bringing something into the film that isn't present in the text? I don’t think so. One sequence, set in a bazaar, constantly cuts away to unidentified Middle Eastern faces who are suspiciously eyeing our heroes. This is reminiscent of the way Kathryn Bigelow created a similar generic threat in The Hurt Locker by constantly cutting away to potentially threatening "Arab" faces during the bomb defusing sequences thus developing a claustrophobic sense that every ‘local’ could be a potential insurgent. Several moments near the climax of Argo also contentiously portray Arabs as goofy, bumbling and even child-like. I don't think the film itself is racist but I do think that much of the tension generated in the film is rooted in a xenophobic fear. Affleck may not agree with those beliefs but he is most certainly capitalizing on them to make his film all the more effective.
The important thing to note here is that all these moments are constructs and not based on the true story. The final act of the film is complete invention as are almost all of ‘excursion’ sequences. This is Hollywood myth-making at its most precise.
Argo competently holds itself when executing its key set pieces (despite ultimately piling one too many absurd contrivance into the mix in the climax) but many of its basic dramatic beats fall frustratingly flat. Mendez' relationship with his son is simultaneously a contrived narrative trick and a quick, lazy way to add depth to a character who is relatively one-dimensional. It again is a construct that is not reflective of the true story. Affleck's casting of himself in this key role is also most probably a mistake. He certainly looks the part, with a killer beard, but he basically manages one expression the entire film.
Best on ground are easily John Goodman and Alan Arkin who establish a buddy chemistry that made me yearn for a film featuring just the two of them hanging out for 90 minutes. Cast to perfection with numerous wonderful faces popping up it's a shame that ultimately everything is so conventional and one-dimensional. The film as a drama is frequently blandly mechanical and despite the gripping story there isn’t much beneath the surface.
The most interesting and atonal moment comes when the film intercuts a table-reading of the Argo screenplay in Hollywood with an Iranian militant giving a press conference in Iran. It's a strangely audacious moment and while Affleck's intention is slightly unclear it still stands out as an inspired moment of creativity amidst a generic escape story. Is this contrast intended to highlight the performative nature of the Iranian press conference or is Affleck creating an Inglorious Bastard-like statement about how Hollywood stories can be emancipatory in an agreeably revisionist fashion? I would probably argue the latter as the blatantly absurd series of thrilling hurdles added to the story virtually confirm this idea inherent to the film that the artifice of Hollywood creates history. Truth is secondary to the story as the story itself becomes the truth.
I'm not entirely sure Affleck is intentionally creating this disconnect to make a point (unlike Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds) but it surely is a fascinating outcome to what ends up being a wholly Hollywood product.
I have been told several times that the above piece is mistaken since I refer to Iranians as Arab when in fact they are Persian. For the record I am well aware of this fact and have slightly changed the piece to reflect that but still frequently use the term 'Arab'. The reason I am using this term is that my argument is referring to a western stereotypical construct of an 'Arab' and not any literal ethnic grouping. The idea of the 'Arab' in the eyes of a western audience viewing Argo is what is at play here and not the fact that these people in the story are literally Iranian, Persian, Muslim or whatever other term you would have preferred me to use.