While it’s fair game to attack a documentary for playing loose and easy with the facts, levelling the same accusations against a ‘Based on a True Story’ feature isn’t as straight forward. The numerous, and endless crimes of omission and embellishment committed by such films will always be ready fodder for comedians and commentators, and a critical engagement with historical retellings is of course a discipline in its own right. A discipline called ‘History’. But skirting around what any given audience knows, what the filmmakers assume, and the dizzying gap in between, can I ever really be justified in criticising a Hollywood thriller for not being balanced?
From the start it should be said that Argo is a painfully well-paced action thriller. Charting the storming of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, the hostage crisis that followed, and the dramatic escape of six embassy workers to the Canadian ambassador’s house is pretty nerve-wracking in its own right. Add to this the CIA’s madcap plan to fake the production of a Star Wars style science fiction adventure, as a cover under which to smuggle out the six US embassy workers, and you have a ‘True Life Story’ too fantastic for fiction, but perfect for the form that Argo takes. Adding to an already respectable track record as a director, Ben Affleck deftly proves his abilities both in-front of and behind the camera, and he clearly has the pulling power to fill the rest of the cast list with countless actors you’ll recognise from meaty bit parts in that film, or the other US TV show. From the hatching of the plan, to its execution, and inevitable climax, the film may as well have had a progress bar running along the bottom of the screen, steadily creeping up from the off towards ‘100% Dramatic Tension Agony’. Some of the final moments are pretty blatant in their daftness (SOMEBODY PICKUP THE RINGING TELEPHONE, THE FATE OF THE FREE WORLD DEPENDS ON IT) but for all of that it’s still really good fun. Like any Hollywood film, just harmless good fun.
Which of course isn’t quite the case. This isn’t some hypothetical spy-drama based on the well-worn tropes of airport pulp novels, but rather it comes with the momentum of being ‘Based on a True Story’. While examples like The Baader Meinhof Complex are perhaps more blatant in how they unblinkingly glamorise political and historical events, Argo presents a less clean cut proposition. The impetus of the drama is driven by its historical context, and how the political tension between the US and Iran made this a life or death proposition on a personal level, while also dangling the threat of all out global strife should these diplomats be caught and executed. The stakes, as they say, don’t get much higher than this.
As a dramatic devices go, you’d struggle to find a more effective omnipotent threat (murderous mobs AND nuclear horror), but in practice the context is given scant attention. There’s a laughable 1-minute cartoon recap of 3000 years of Persian/Iranian history at the very front of the film, and possibly two or three actual Iranian characters in the whole film. The rest of Iran is cast as the furious marching revolutionary horde, easily riled and quick to action. The furious mob is of course a terrifying prospect, inescapable and non-negotiable, and its immediacy is recognisable following the recent attack of the US embassy in Benghazi, and the tragic murders which followed. This terror is nothing new, but in taking such a force and neutering it of any political underpinning, what you’re left with is a zombie horde devoid of anything but a murderous impulse. Just not specifically focused on brains.
For the thriller-driven purposes of the film this simplification makes certain sense, yet in skirting over the complexity of historical as well as contemporary Iranian politics, a chance to deepen the narrative has been missed. Not that Affleck could have given the angry mob a reasoned voice, and perhaps the broader actions of the Ayatollah’s forces can’t be balanced in any reasonable sense, but in only throwing a handful of lines to the two or so Iranian characters afforded any dialogue Affleck only hints at the conflicted position of the individual stuck in the terrifying political climate of Tehran in 1979.
Not that I could reasonably beat the film with the journalistic stick of fair-and-balanced reportage, and the Wikipedia page for the film does a good job of covering all the bent and broken facts necessitated in the telling of this story. Chalk what you will up to artistic license, and enjoy the film for the ride it is, I still feel sorry that for all the energy spent sourcing all the meticulous period detail (clothes, props, facial hair), that maybe a bit more focus could have been afforded to the period’s politics as well.
A score? Ar-go make up your own mind.
(or Four out of Five if you do insist)