There are films that are explicitly designed for election season, there are films that are judiciously delayed by election season, and then there are films that fit into election season quite by accident, there having been no way that anyone involved with their production could have known how neatly they would intersect with the turn of events. Into this third category falls Ben Affleck’s third directorial outing, Argo.
In fair Tehran, Argo lays its scene — on November 4, 1979, no less — and it opens graphically, with the storming of the American embassy. Given recent events in the Middle East and the remarkable accuracy of the depiction, this makes for difficult viewing. “We need more security!” one agent shouts as the undefended wall of the compound is breached. A few minutes later, when the mob breaks through the front door, he realizes with horror that “nobody is coming.” He is right: Nobody comes, and the invaders quickly take control. Marines and civilians alike are blindfolded and led away. The power is cut.
Americans are familiar with the facts of the Iranian hostage crisis, in no small part because the hostages’ plight was documented each evening on the news at a level of excruciating detail nowadays reserved for the denizens of reality television. But Americans are less well acquainted with the so-called “Canadian Caper,” the heretofore little-known story of the six American diplomats who managed to escape the embassy in the heat of battle to take quiet refuge in the nearby Canadian consulate. It is this story around which Argo’s drama revolves.
That story, briefly: Intent on setting the sextet free, the U.S. government contrives a variety of risible rescue plans before thoughtful CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) comes up with an alternative. Despite its idiosyncrasy, it is ultimately deemed the “best bad idea” and grudgingly given the green light. Mendez’s plan is, effectively, to “launder” the prisoners. And so we see a fake movie being made in order to fight a real war. (An inversion of sorts of 1997’s Wag the Dog.) The CIA recruits a makeup artist and a Hollywood director, buys a surplus script, and sets up a real production company, which is charged with turning a dreadful Star Wars knockoff, Argo, into a blockbuster hit. With the extensive help of the Canadian government, the six diplomats are given false identities — along with fictitious “roles” in the film’s direction — and it is up to Mendez to go into Iran undercover and to walk them out under the temerarious conceit that they all flew in together two days earlier in order to scout filming locations.
That Ben Affleck has become such an accomplished director is one of Hollywood’s less predictable developments, but he has, and Argo is his best movie yet. It shines, in part because Affleck understands instinctively the pacing that a story such as this requires, and in part because he is admirably willing to show without attenuation the brutality of the Iranian regime and the desperate irrationality of the enraged Muslim street that enabled it. Those who stayed to watch the credits might have noticed that George Clooney was involved with the film’s production. If his role was anything more than ceremonial, he was apparently kept away from the script; unlike Clooney, with his sermons-disguised-as-movies, Affleck appears to be interested primarily in storytelling.
As one might imagine, many of Hollywood’s trademark dramatic tricks make it into the film, especially in the third act. But they do not cheapen the offering. Why not? Well, because action and suspense tend not to feel contrived when the lion’s share of the story is true and when the stakes depicted were real. In this regard, Argo is reminiscent of 1995’s Apollo 13. As with that film, the inclusion in Argo of the oft-slippery caveat “based on a true story” actually does the accuracy of the plot an injustice. There are fictions, to be sure, but they are outweighed by facts.
As a result of its deft direction and attention to detail, Argo manages to impress its audience into empathizing utterly with the distress and disquietude of the escapees — even though we know full well that they will ultimately escape to safety. This is no mean feat. To convince disinterested moviegoers to abdicate their knowledge or their instinct in favor of primitive emotion is a skill — and by his third movie, Affleck has acquired it in spades. He has solid comic timing, too. While his own character remains quiet and unmemorable, director Affleck gracefully weaves in a few moments of relief — moments that serve as a safety valve that successfully offsets the tension without ever ranging into disrespect.
Insofar as any film that is about political failure can be, the movie is not primarily about politics. But the troubled atmosphere of the late Seventies is unavoidably pervasive. (Whoever designed the clothes and sets takes some of the credit for this, and deserves an Oscar.) Jimmy Carter makes occasional cameo appearances via vintage news footage, and his weakness is palpable. And while the Carter–Reagan themes that many have attempted to impose on this year’s election are, by and large, based more on desire than on any serious historical parallel, Argo inadvertently serves as a strong reminder of just how embarrassed the United States was by Tehran in the final year of Carter’s only administration.
Those only vaguely aware of the recent events in Libya, Syria, and beyond will likely watch the film’s opening and conclude that nothing ever really changes. But the more perceptive will notice the last caption of the credits, which informs the audience that the hostage crisis ended on January 20, 1981 — the day of Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration. That, perhaps, was an accident; but it nonetheless contributed to a perception of Reagan’s election as ushering in a new, strong beginning for America.
Argo’s being released so soon after American embassies once again came under attack is another accident. What effect it will have on voters’ sensibilities remains to be seen, but one can safely presume at least that Barack Obama would not have chosen to have such a compellingly relevant illustration of American weakness on display just weeks before Election Day. Argo is one October surprise that the White House could perhaps have done without. The president’s loss is our gain: Go and see it.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.