Film Review: Argo

Films don’t usually get secondary titles the way some books or academic works do more frequently. What would the best secondary title for Argo be, I wonder? Argo: The Tensest Film Ever Made? Well while I suspect that secondary title to be accurate, it’s hardly a good selling point. True story: I actually walked out of Argo when I tried to watch it in a theater, not because it was a bad film (and yes, I’m the sort of moviegoer who will walk out on a film if I consider it to be bad enough to deserve it) but because it was so tense that watching it was making me gravely uncomfortable. The experience was excruciating for me. I could only make it for about 20 minutes. This week I decided to try watching it on the small screen. I reasoned that in a less panoramic context, the tension might be more bearable. I was completely right. I still caught myself exhibiting physical symptoms of tension many times while watching this film – I had to consciously un-grit my teeth – but the experience was more manageable for me, I made it all the way through.

Argo: A Most Curious Intersection of Art and Politics? Better, but the phrasing of “A Most Curious…” gives this secondary title something of a Victorian feel, and Argo is not just a period piece about 1980, it’s the best period piece about 1980 I’ve ever seen. A secondary title should have resonance with a film’s artistic qualities, and Argo does not feel antiquated. Its political content remains vibrant and relevant, thirty years after the events went down.

Perhaps Argo: This Is How It Happened? Argo is very much a movie about the HOW of this particular declassified covert operation. There’s a little information given about the WHY, enough context that the viewer understands why the Iranian hatred of the Shah and his allies is so virulent, but much, much more attention is paid to the HOW. It is the focus on HOW that makes this such a period piece. HOW is very much a question of technology, and the technology of thirty years ago is not the technology of today. For a moment of mental relief from the film’s tension, try to take a step back and consider whether the main characters would have been more significantly helped, or hindered, if mobile phone technology had been present in their crisis.

Authenticity of Setting

Her hair... it's just like Farrah Fawcett!
Her hair… it’s just like Farrah Fawcett!

I have to handle it to Affleck’s design crew and creative team, Argo really does feel like a page ripped from time. Every detail fits together, from the haircuts to the costumes to the props to the soundtrack. I suppose the fact that by the time 1980 rolled around, the Information Age had been born, so these period details were well-documented in sources that are still available. It’s easier for a design team to research 1980 USA than, say, Bronze Age China. But it’s one thing to have detailed research available, another thing to apply it. There is a temptation to update, revamp, to make a “fresh twist” that takes elements from the period and blends them with contemporary elements that young, hip viewers will find more familiar. And of course in any design work there is the desire to be creative, to leave a fingerprint so that someone who knows how to pay attention will know that yours were the hands that made it. Maybe I just don’t know how to pay attention, but in Argo all the fingerprints are invisible. To use an image from classic typographical theory, the design work of this film is like a perfectly clear, plain wineglass. The wine of history is what gets caught by the light; creativity gets out of the way.

Plot

You don't want to need one, but when you do, you don't do it yourself.
You don’t want to need one, but when you do, you don’t do it yourself.

As stated above, Argo is a nailbiter. A CIA operative who specializes in getting US citizens out of places where US citizens are hated in a murderous way takes on the challenge of a lifetime: 6 staff members who have escaped the US Embassy in Tehran where the other staff members are currently being held hostage with the asking price of the head of the exiled Shah (which the US can’t deliver without losing current allies it has in other countries). Every way to get these staff members out of the country looks like certain disaster. The CIA operative gambles on creating a fake film as a cover story to get himself into Tehran, a film for which the 6 embassy workers will pose as crew members just long enough to get back out of the country. This really happened, folks. There was even a press event that featured a reading of the script for the fake film (they picked up a real script). Thinking about this makes me wonder what else I’ve heard of in the media that might have been entirely staged… Argo is based on a declassified CIA case file. What’s still classified, I wonder?

Putting my tin foil hat safely back on its peg, this film’s tension is derived from its extended sequences of narrowly-missed disasters. In most action/suspense stories, there is time taken away from the tension for character development (even if those characters are cardboard cutouts) and also time devoted lovingly to exhilarating extended action sequences. You know what I’m talking about: choreographed fight scenes that are more like dances come to mind. Argo‘s plot takes the time that would be normally devoted to that stuff, and uses it to ratchet the tension up another few notches. No scene is wasted. Even something as mundane as a long-distance phone call home to a kid is kept only because it moves the plot along. Do not start watching Argo thinking you’ll have time to get the microwave popcorn from the kitchen during a slow scene. There are no slow scenes in your immediate future.

Themes

This happened.
This happened.

The opening sequence, in which the angry mob breaks into the Embassy to take hostages while the 6 staff members slip out the only door in the complex that leads directly to the street, brought tears to my eyes. Particularly when the head of security tried to go outside to reason with a street full of angry people wanting revenge for decades of oppression. I have never gotten myself into a situation that careful use of words could not get me out of. The prospect of being in a situation so grave, not as a soldier but as a civil servant, filled me with a sort of blind terror as I watched. A mob’s not going to care that I’m an anarchosyndaclist who despises the hegemonic policies of my nation. A mob’s still going to want my blood. Right now, I have the luxury of living somewhere where there is no mob. Will that always be the case? Will I someday be the one at the door with my hands bound and a strip of cloth over my eyes, pleading with my allies to let me back in? Most of the time I’m able to shush my fears down to a dull roar in the back of my mind. Argo paraded them in front of my eyes, and said with stern intensity: “This is real. This could happen. This did happen.”

I would like to give this film 5 out of 5. I really would, for its artistic integrity is stellar. But I am going to have to knock it down a point, because anxiety and tension is such an unpleasant experience. I respect Argo deeply and I think it does exactly what it intended to do. But respecting something is not the same as liking it, and even though I was able to get all the way through this time, I didn’t like doing it. It is possible to make a film that has artistic integrity, deals with an unpleasant subject, and still has enough beauty to make for a pleasant experience. Argo is not House of Sand and Fog. I guess I can’t give reality 5 out of 5.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

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