The Oscar pool this year is chock full of historically contentious material, from Tarantino’s cartoonish pillaging of slavery in Django Unchained to Bigelow’s controversial torture reconstructions in Zero Dark Thirty. Both pictures have generated their fair share of fierce debate on both sides of the spectrum, yet the furore over their subject matter – specifically the latter pic – threatens to overshadow the unfortunate characterisations in Affleck’s Argo. Ben Affleck’s third directorial feature is picking up serious steam ahead of this month’s Oscar ceremony. Argo took home the Golden Globe for Best Drama, Affleck himself was honoured with a DGA award and a whole host of other accolades fell amidst a shower of critical praise.
The film makes claims to historical accuracy – and, ergo, prestige – with the tagline “The movie was fake. The mission was real.” So begins two hours of fear and loathing in a land far, far away. We’re asked to relive (for the first time, quite possibly) the 1979 Iran hostage crisis; here it falls to bearded Ben to hand the captive diplomats their jailbreak in the form of a pretend science fiction film shoot. Backed by a permanently brooding Bryan Cranston as supervisor Jack O’Donnell, Tony Mendez whisks over to Iran with an audacious rescue plot that just. might. work.
Events flit between frustrated deliberation in the US, as the administration ponders its options with a heavy brow, and meandering in the Middle East. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s decision to switch between 35mm and 16mm dependent on location is a cosmetic touch that proves neither jarring nor helpful in discerning between environments. It’s an arbitrary stylistic choice that fails to compensate for Affleck’s otherwise bland direction, reliant on quick edits and close frames of both anguished hostages and ‘suspicious’ Iranians.
The tension in Argo operates on a number of symbiotic levels. Firstly, there’s small instances of tension on a micro-level, negligible at a glance but integral to the film’s key aim of fitting the audience firmly behind its protagonist. Affleck’s Mendez brings his fake movie idea to the State Department only to be shot down, at least for a short while. Later, he focuses his brainstorm into a science-fiction concept and receives criticism from Alan Arkin’s (fictional) producer Lester Siegel. These are passing moments of obstruction, but Hollywood convention necessitates their inclusion no matter how real or not the objections may be. Nobody gives blanket approval to a suggestion that will fundamentally carry things to their fruition. Not in this universe.
Move up a notch and we come to the miniature crises. This is storytelling 101. An inciting incident has precipitated our protagonist to take action, but as has already been inferred, viewer satisfaction can not reach its potential unless it hits a few roadblocks. In one scene, John Goodman’s make-up artist John Chambers arrives in the nick of time for an Iranian official’s phone call, verifying the whereabouts of a crew member. This sequence involves a heavy amount of cross-cutting between an anxious abeyance in Iran and, over in the US, an awkward shuffle between Chambers and an obstructive director. The creation of suspense is loose and flimsy, as in other moments in the film such as the impossibly boring pursuit of a plane by a host of police cars. Each threat is imminent yet ineffective.
Due to the film’s self-proclaimed status as an apparent factual document, one can assume that none of these frequent dangers could significantly dent the mission. This foresight places a higher burden on Affleck to drum up heightened suspense for episodes in which eventual safety is altogether assured. Sadly, Affleck’s answer to this conundrum is as problematic as needs be to sink the entire effort.
Before we reach the offending article, let’s move upwards, all the way to tension at a macro-level. Here we have a gripping tale of cautious stealth and risk, one jigsaw piece as part of a longstanding narrative of ambivalence between the US and Middle East. Though however far-reaching things become, the audience does prefer its traumas to be distilled into one leading protagonist: a mirror-ego on the screen to absorb our elation and disappointment. Affleck’s Mendez is that man; his familial issues are so far removed from the bigger picture yet remain as taxing preoccupations around each of his actions. Everything will be alright in the end – we hope – and so the macro-tension justifies our inherent belief in the otherwise slender terror of micro-tensions that claw at our hero’s progress.
In the centre of these manoeuvres lies the film’s core destructive principle. Historical evidence informs us that almost all of the overly dramatic Iran sequences in Iran went far smoother than the film’s depiction would have us believe. No almighty airport confrontation, no heated runway chase, nothing. So how does Affleck compensate for the tyranny of reality? How does he juice it up?
Affleck scores easy points through capitalising on a fear of the Other – veiled with some people and luminous on the sleeves of others – to casually portray almost every Iranian as an ominous threat.
Watch the hostages as they squirm through a crowd of uniformly distrustful locals as if crawling through a spiders’ cove. Each Iranian is like to erupt into a violent outburst or, at the very least, ward a dormant anger at bay under dark, foreboding eyes. In one sequence, Mendez and co find their minibus assailed from every direction by a horde of jabbering protestors. Forgive me if I thought I was watching an episode of the Walking Dead.
And yet, what many reviewers have crucially ommitted to mention in their own damning of this tragic stereotyping of the Iranian people is that it’s really only half the worry. The complementary, consequential second half is the overwrought revulsion on each hostage’s face. Led by our man Mendez, these people are, tragically, our onscreen surrogates. They react to the zombie rush on our behalf, so that we may reciprocate.
Of course, this overt misguidance of identification can lead to an adverse effect. I actually found myself less taxed by the incessant whinging and whining from the six hostages, considerably more infuriated at their means of jubilation. In both the scene where they raise a merry old toast to the project’s (temporary) cancellation, and their divebomb embracing of one another aboard the escaping plane, a sour taste filled my mouth. What am I seeing? Obnoxious westerners screeching in one another’s ears as the rest of the flight remains seated, civil, human. The film progessively began to remind me of those oh-so beloved videogame missions whose success depends solely on escorting an AI character from A to B without any significant harm. Each of these hostages recalled that bumbling, idiotic AI: walking into walls, travelling in the opposite direction, blurting unhelpful comments and cramping my style. In short, they came across as a basket of tosspots.
But this is the broad foundation upon which Affleck has built Argo. He believed this slight incident an interesting story to tell, though his methodology is at the expense of even a marginal aesthetic investment in the plight of men and women under siege. Instead, he resorted to offensive ringfenced stereotypes. Action movies can and have done far worse, but it is precisely because this is an Oscar frontrunner that its dangerous characterisations can not be underestimated. When we dress our fanciful US pictures up in prestige at year’s end, we grant them undue authority. Some films, like Argo, are criminally undeserving. Their pretense at importance even moreso.