Ben Affleck stars in and directs a film set during the Iran hostage crisis. Illustration by Concepción Studios.
The new Ben Affleck movie, “Argo,” begins in November, 1979, with the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran. A crowd breaks into the compound, taking more than fifty Americans hostage. Six escape through the back of the building and take refuge in the residence of the Canadian Ambassador. How can they be spirited out of the country, or, as the jargon puts it, exfiltrated? Back in Washington, the task falls to a C.I.A. staffer named Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), from the Office of Technical Services. Various plans have been mooted, the most credible being that the hostages could make it to the border, hundreds of miles away, on bikes. Mendez, however, has an even better idea. Well, not a better one, but a more ridiculous one: how about making a movie?
Enter John Chambers (John Goodman), a prosthetics guru whose work on simian features, for “Planet of the Apes,” earned him an Academy Award, in 1969, and whose talents the Agency has called on in the past. Mendez goes to Hollywood and asks Chambers to devise a nonexistent film: find a script that requires a Middle Eastern setting, and build up a simulacrum of a genuine production. Posters, storyboards, costumes, read-throughs, buzz in the trade papers: everything will help. Mendez, posing as an associate producer, will fly to Iran, issue false identities to the six Americans, claim that they are scouting locations for a Canadian science-fiction movie, and then fly them out.
Four things should be said about this pipe dream. One, it went ahead; two, it worked; three, it wasn’t declassified until 1997; and four, it makes for a good movie, and further proof that we were wrong about Ben Affleck. Few of us, watching “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor,” could see a way out, or back, for an actor so utterly at the mercy of his own jawline. Did he flinch at a future composed of all-American strivers, each more earnest than the last, or had he always been nipped by the directing bug? Whatever the case, Affleck was suddenly there with “Gone Baby Gone” (2007), which was more roughened by energies and doubts than all his performances combined. He took the precaution of recruiting actors more formidable than himself—Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris—to boost his endeavors, and that habit remains. “Argo” has Victor Garber as the Canadian Ambassador, Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s superior, and, most enjoyable of all, Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel, a producer so scornfully amused by Mendez’s request that he has no option but to obey it. He does have one proviso. “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” he says.
The fake they decide upon is entitled “Argo,” made by a bogus company called Studio Six, and lovingly described by Chambers as “a twenty-million-dollar ‘Star Wars’ ripoff.” I can’t be the only person who ardently wishes that he and Siegel had gone ahead and shot it. Affleck has a lot of fun, perhaps an ounce too much, with the daftness of the film industry; when Mendez, thinking ahead to the hostages’ cover stories, asks whether you can be taught to direct movies in a day, Chambers replies, “You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.” No one is more skilled than Goodman, with his faintly bullying geniality, at dishing up lines like that, but must we buy his character’s implication that Hollywood is just another planet of the apes? Is it good for mendacity, and nothing else?
This matters because “Argo” is, in part, a battle of the textures. When it comes to period detail, Affleck seems to take his cue from Mendez, who worked for the Graphics and Authentication Division of the O.T.S.; just look at the typography of the opening credits, with its bulbous seventies curves. Affleck’s beard and hair style suggest someone who moonlighted from the intelligence services to pose for “The Joy of Sex,” and, as you study the fashions of the era, you have to ask whether the Ayatollah’s fury was provoked by U.S. support for the Shah or, more simply, by the width of Western shirt collars. Everything about the Tehran sequences, in fact, is a rebuke to style. The camera work is anxious and twitching, with a grainy surface to match. Here, we gather, is the real thing: life hemming us in, like a mob.
Then comes the climax. If you visit the C.I.A. Web site, you can read Mendez’s account of events in January, 1980. “As smooth as silk,” he calls the hostages’ passage through the airport, whereas Affleck, chopping up the action and spinning it out, insures that no nails remain unchewed. This is absolutely his right as a teller of tales, and “Argo” never claims to be a documentary. It struck me as a bit rich, however, to make such sport of Hollywood deceitfulness and then to round off your movie with an expert helping of white lies, piling on car chases that never occurred. As for the aftermath, it goes on forever. We get hurrahs for Canadian-American relations; a shot of Mendez hugging his wife, from whom he has been estranged, with the Stars and Stripes fluttering behind; images of the actual hostages, presumably for any skeptics who still find the film implausible; and, finally, a voice-over from Jimmy Carter, lauding the efforts of those involved. All this is, frankly, uncool—a pity, because the rest of “Argo” feels clever, taut, and restrained. Why not close with the perfect coda that Mendez himself supplied? “By the time Studio Six folded several weeks after the rescue, we had received twenty-six scripts,” he wrote. “One was from Steven Spielberg.”