“Argo”: How Much Fun is a Hostage Crisis? Actually, a Lot


7-word review for the ADD-afflicted: 
Good historiography? Probably not. Good filmmaking? Absolutely.

70-word review for the busy: Argo is a strange hybrid: one part high-energy suspense film, one part historical reenactment, and one part satire of Hollywood. Plenty of potential pitfalls: Will it come across as preachy? Will it veer too far from the truth? Will it seem ghoulish and cynical for making a real-life crisis look like so much fun? Like the so-crazy-it-just-might-work scheme that it depicts, Argo really shouldn’t come together. But somehow it does.

700-word review for the procrastinators:

Filming a joy-ride caper movie about the Iranian hostage crisis runs a lot of the same risks as, say, making a joke about race. You’ll bother some people no matter what, but you can probably get away with it, as long as it’s a really good joke.

Lucky for director Ben Affleck – and for us – Argo is a good joke.

In 1980, while American news anchors counted the days of the Iranian hostage crisis, six United States diplomats were lying low in Tehran. They had escaped the terror at the embassy, and now hid in the houses of Canadian allies, awaiting help. The rescue attempt came in bizarre form: a fake CIA-concocted sci-fi flick, pretending to scout desert locations in Iran, aiming to offer the six Americans cover identities and an escape. Argo is based on that true story.

Affleck – a former Middle Eastern Studies major – nails some chilling historical details: the real-life news footage, the mob of Iranians jumping the embassy gates, the hanged corpse swinging from a crane in downtown Tehran. Most of the actors look a heck of a lot like their real-life counterparts (Affleck himself an obvious exception). For Americans too young to remember the hostage crisis itself, Argo offers a sobering (if Hollywood-ized) glimpse.

More to the point, the film is really damn entertaining. Every plot twist lands in step with the unspoken rhythm every moviegoer knows by instinct. You’ve seen it all before – the bad guys hot on the trail, the good guys in disarray, the hero forced to risk it all – and you couldn’t be happier to see it again. When a phone rings in an empty office, you’re on the edge of your seat. When a husband and wife hug, you tear up. When Alan Arkin drops a well-timed F-bomb, you laugh and start applauding. Being manipulated never felt so good.

Somewhere between Gigli and Gone Baby Gone, Affleck transformed from a despised actor into a kick-ass director. I’d be curious to hear: Did anybody witness this metamorphosis firsthand? Did he smile? Did he sigh? Did the music swell, his gaze fading into the distance before suddenly snapping into a steely focus?

Or perhaps, while cleaning out his closet after a messy break-up, did he stumble across an early draft of the Good Will Hunting script and draw his finger slowly across his byline, shedding a single heroic tear?

Affleck’s biggest problem as an actor was that he picked lousy scripts. Now, he’s doing one better: turning good scripts into really good films. He’s become such a master of film conventions and clichés that he was able to dodge the cliché of his own career – the pretty-boy actor squandering his prime by signing onto projects of escalating awfulness. Argo is his best film yet, and a favorite conversation topic for the kind of people who like talking about the Oscars in November.

Of course, if you’re a stickler for trivialities like “truth” and “reality,” Argo might not suit your tastes. We see fictional interrogations, imaginary car chases, an inflated role for the CIA, a diminished one for the Canadian government, and a narrative snubbing of the helpful real-life diplomats from Britain and New Zealand.

Affleck has taken well-deserved flak for those decisions. Adapting a historical event isn’t like adapting a novel. When you cut or consolidate characters, you’re rewriting the biographies of real people, many still living. Affleck treats the Iranian Revolution, in all its tragedy and complexity, as not much more than a compelling backdrop for his witty escape film.

Still, for someone like me – born 7 years after these events, only passingly familiar with them, and capable of using Wikipedia to sort fact from fiction afterwards – there’s little harm done.

Argo is a movie about the power of movies. A fake sci-fi film succeeds as a CIA cover story because Hollywood types are the only ones crazy enough to scout shooting locations at the epicenter of a violent revolution. Affleck pokes fun at that craziness, but celebrates it, too, finding much to admire in the audacity of storytellers.

Is Argo good politics? Probably not. Is it good filmmaking? Without a doubt.

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