Technically, the CIA and the Canadian government actually did it, but what Argo tells us is that the myth of Hollywood saved six lives in Tehran in 1979. Hollywood itself didn’t have much to do with it; part of the cover story involved a government-sanctioned independent studio, which was supposedly scouting locations in Iran for a sci-fi turkey. All hail indie cinema! Argo should tickle pop-culture geeks with long memories: John Chambers (played here by John Goodman), who was instrumental in what became known as “the Canadian caper,” had won an Oscar for his simian makeup for Planet of the Apes; comics legend Jack Kirby was pressed into service as a storyboard artist for the fake movie; and the fake movie itself, also called Argo, began life as a script based on a novel by science-fiction titan Roger Zelazny. This may be the most geek-friendly movie that never did the rounds at Comic-Con.

Goodman’s introduction scene is a pip: Chambers strolling onto the set of some terrible minotaur movie, to the sublime funk and bounce of Booker T. and the MGs’ “Hip-Hug-Her.” His scenes with Alan Arkin, as an attenuated movie producer who picks Argo from the slush pile for the greater good, give the film a lift it badly needs; much of the movie is fairly tense and grim, though directed with crackle and momentum by Ben Affleck. Six American diplomats are trapped in the home of the Canadian ambassador during the hostage crisis; the clock is ticking on their rescue, which demands stealth and subterfuge. CIA expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) shoots holes in every idea the State Department floats past him, then catches a TV showing of Battle for the Planet of the Apes and thinks of his (and the CIA’s) friend Chambers.

Affleck can only fit so much into two hours, but some will wish for more details on the movie that never was, the actors (cult-flick favorite Adrienne Barbeau appears as one of them; Affleck knows his retro cinema) gamely sitting in costume for a full-dress script read-through. I hope Uncle Sam paid them for their time; they might’ve been missing out on gigs as extras on Galactica 1980. What Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio do accomplish is an unstressed tribute to the power of fantasy to shape reality. Around the time Khomeini came to power and set off the hostage crisis, Harlan Ellison commented that the rest of the world was now living in Khomeini’s warped reality, and in Argo, veteran reality-warpers from Hollywood and the CIA join forces. Mendez’ scheme to sneak the diplomats out of Tehran under the cover story that they’re Canadian filmmakers may not strike the government as too implausible, given that spycraft is all about acting and storytelling.

Affleck’s idea (a good one) of making a film set in the late ’70s is to make it look like a film made in the late ’70s, including the vintage red Warner logo at the start. Master cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto opts for warm, natural colors even in the grayness of government offices. Some of the movie’s events, as Affleck has acknowledged, have been amped up, Hollywoodized. There was no frantic pursuit of the diplomats’ departing plane by Iranian guards, and probably the scene in which the “filmmakers” almost get nabbed while faking a location scout in a crowded bazaar has been intensified for audience consumption. But the theme of countering absurdity with absurdity holds strong, as does the subtext that people of any nationality can be blinded by Hollywood bullshit. When some guards at the Tehran airport browse the fake film’s storyboards, making excited “pew pew” laser sounds, the movie amusingly suggests that Star Wars has even infiltrated such an unlikely place as Iran. Hey, if George Lucas helped save six lives, even indirectly, that might make up for the Star Wars prequels.

Some of the last images in Argo pan across various action figures — Star Wars, Star Trek — on the bedroom shelves of Mendez’ little boy. I assume that Mendez’ actual career included “exfiltration” plots far more sober-sided than a fictitious space opera. But Argo is about the time that Mendez rubbed elbows with the fantasists and sharks who keep the dream machine humming. Dumb as they often are, movies at their core are escapist, and Argo literalizes that — the non-existent movie actually helps six people escape. The shot of the airplane lifting off over the rooftops of Tehran is a bit too on-the-nose as a metaphor — get on board the movie plane and leave your worries behind! — but it happened, as did the celebratory round of drinks when the plane left Iranian airspace. That’s a wrap.

Explore posts in the same categories: biopic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: