Ignore the hype

OUT NOW! ARGO's only addition to the standard caper film formula is racism and islamophobia.

Considering the way in which Iran dominated the U.S. presidential debate on foreign policy, Ben Affleck’s Argo, released in the States a month before the election, arrives just in time to stoke the fires of paranoia and xenophobia.

Recently declassified information revealed that during the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, six members of staff managed to escape. They hid in the Canadian ambassador’s residence until the CIA camouflaged them as the Canadian film crew of a nonexistent film and ushered them out of the country on a commercial flight right under the Iranian officials’ noses. A true story this unbelievable would be any filmmaker’s dream; too bad it landed in the hands of a filmmaker with about as much tact as a Tea Party zealot.

Even ignoring the politics for a second, it’s not a particularly good film. Consider this painfully formulaic structure: a maverick (Affleck himself – who else?) presents an outlandish scheme to save the day; his superiors first dismiss him and then give in, mainly because of his charisma and wisecracks; he assembles a team of equally wisecracking experts; a number of obstacles arise, all of which threaten to destroy the mission but are heroically overcome at the last second; the day is saved, the maverick is a hero and his former sceptics are forced to admit that he was right all along.

Not only is nothing new, but everything is overdone. The relentless wisecracking is truly unbearable – you’d think everyone in the CIA spoke solely in witty one-liners, regardless of how drastic a diplomatic crisis lay at hand – and the number of mission-threatening obstacles piled up in the last 10 minutes becomes so ludicrous, it completely kills the suspense it so desperately tries to build (yet again, we know they made it, so how suspenseful could it really get?). 

Now for the politics, which upgrade the film from trite to despicable. Reminding us that Cold War-style dichotomy is far from extinct, Argo presents the Americans as upstanding champions of freedom, democracy and all other values that are good and righteous, while the Iranians, what little characterization they get, are shown to be but a bunch of violent and deranged animals, barking their incomprehensible language while waving Kalashnikovs in the air. Yes, there is one exception, included no doubt to absolve the film of the criticism levied here: the Canadian ambassador’s servant who refrains from betraying the hostages. However, not only is she in her teens, still too young to have been corrupted by her nefarious environment, but her character isn’t given so much as a minute of screen time – to consider her inclusion as providing a balanced portrait is like arguing that the single shot depicting a pile of bodies in Roberto Benigni’s farcical Life is Beautiful does justice to the horror of the Holocaust.

Vilifying an entire population evidently wasn’t enough and the film’s climax makes sure to extend the discrimination just that comfortable bit further. Even though the plane has taken off, the group is still terrified and it’s only once the captain announces that alcoholic beverages may again be served that they start celebrating their escape. Ah, alcohol, that good old signifier for freedom. Affleck probably cut out the next bit, where one of the hostages happily munches on a bacon sandwich while his wife quips that now he has to start respecting her again – that wouldn’t have been subtle.

Argo | Directed by Ben Affleck (USA 2012) with Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman. Starts November 8