Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Golden Fleecing

Art doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's a reaction--a commentary, an interpretation, a criticism--of the world we live in, and it can't help but be shaped by the material conditions of its creation. Most people know this, practically take it for granted. What gets less attention is how subsequent events shade our understanding and response. Argo was ostensibly intended as a taut and reasonably fun thriller that told the fascinating story of the Iranian hostage rescue mission that didn't fail; at most, its real-world resonance would be a modest rehabilitation of Jimmy Carter's reputation. Fate would have it the movie hit theaters barely a month after the September 11 attack on the American consulate in Libya that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens, the worst diplomatic disaster since, well, the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The timing can't help but color one's response.

Recent history gives Argo's opening scenes an especially visceral immediacy. Cutting archival footage of the 1979 storming of the American embassy with period perfect re-enactments, and depicting attempts within the embassy offices to deal with the rapidly escalating situation, the sequence has a terrific on-the-ground quality that starts the movie off with bang. By so vividly recreating the events of '79, it provides an uneasy vicarious experience of the Egyptian and Libyan missions of but a month ago. (I don't know if Warner Brothers ever considered delaying the movie's release out of "sensitivity" regarding the Libya attack, but since such moves are stupid and self-defeating, I'm quite glad they did not.)

After six American diplomats manage to escape and find asylum in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), the movie settles into what is essentially a heist flick mold. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), CIA rescue ops badass, is tapped by State Department mover and shaker Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) to figure out how to rescue the six Americans. He eventually settles on a plan, "the best bad option," to enter the country posing as a Hollywood producer scouting locations for a fake Hollywood science fiction movie, and to disguise the diplomats as his production crew and take them back with him. To do this he needs to create a believable dummy production--including script, concept art, and authentic trade magazine publicity--with the help of Planet of the Apes makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Which is hard enough before having to actually go to Tehran and get the Americans out before the sweatshop workers piecing together their shredded embassy photos can alert the Revolutionary Guards that there are Americans hiding in Tehran.

The plot pretty much takes care of itself, explaining the steps to be followed and then upping the ante with a raft of complications along the way. It's solid stuff, and the script and actors deftly balance the grave seriousness of the problem with the absurdity of the solution at hand. The good humor of Arkin and Goodman (who at one point tells Affleck, who directed this movie, that you "can train a rhesus monkey to direct in a day") dominates the Hollywood-heavy first half, somewhat to the detriment of the back end. As they can only sit around and wait to be rescued, the American hideaways are only given the barest of character development, and so it falls mostly on Affleck to carry the picture once it moves to Iran. He does good work as the smartest man in the room, steely and unflappable except for a concern about having to be away from his family that is exactly as perfunctory as it needs to be. Still, it would have been nice to get to know the trapped Americans better in order to contrast them with the roles they are forced to adopt for their survival.

Without getting into too much detail, the movie's third act goes perhaps too far in the use of creative license. The action got to be enough that it took me out of the film, and I started to wonder how much of this was true. It's not a fair complaint--there really was a lot that was fictionalized, to the movie's benefit--and William Goldenberg's editing does wonders tying together three plot threads that moment-by-moment push the tension ever higher. But the movie does start to feel (ironically?) a little too Hollywoody, whereas everything that came before was believable and restrained.

Maybe it's just recent events, the "too soon" factor, that make me fault the movie for its drift into fancy. If so, it works more than one-way. For not only does the September 11 consulate attack shape the way one approaches Argo, but Argo shapes the way one looks at the consulate attacks. It isn't much of a spoiler to say that the operation is successful but the U.S. government must publicly give all credit to the Canadians because the embassy hostages would otherwise face brutal reprisal. The movie ends here, but in the real world history marched on: those hostages and the failed attempt to free them, for whose sake the government buried the story of its most spectacular rescue mission, helped destroy Jimmy Carter's presidency, and it was not until he left office that they were freed.

Too often secrecy is invoked by our government today as a means of covering up information that would embarrass it. Argo presents an all-too-rare instance of secrecy that did precisely the opposite, that downplayed success for the greater good until 1997, when the mission was declassified. If there's a takeaway from the timing of the movie's release, it's that there is often more going on in international relations than we realize. Unknown unknowns, and all that. Moreover, the people who are involved in these hot spots, do realize what's going on. Or, at least, they know the risks. As an end-of-movie caption inform us, all of the rescued diplomats, in spite of their harrowing experience, returned to the foreign service. One imagines Ambassador Chris Stevens would have done the same.

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