Ben Affleck, in his role as director of Argo, does something very smart at the film’s very start: in two minutes he provides us with the context of why Iranians were pissed off enough at the United States in 1979 to take 66 American Embassy workers hostage. And once you know that not only did the CIA engineer the ouster of a popular Iranian prime minister so as to cement the Shah’s rule—which turned out to be include the torture and murder of thousand of political opponents—but that after the Iranian Revolution the U.S. refused to extradite the Shah to Iran to stand trial not only for those atrocities, but also for the billions of dollars with which he absconded into exile, you get it.
But that’s not the point of Argo. Or shall we say, it’s no more the point than the fact that atrocities continued in Iran under the Shah’s successor. All of this is the historical backdrop of Argo, a Hollywood rendering of how the CIA helped rescue six embassy workers by hatching a pretty damn impressive scheme to fool Iranian authorities into thinking that the six were a Canadian advance team location-scouting for a sci-fi film.
Argo is most interesting when it sticks—or at least seems to stick—to real-life facts. The taking of the embassy is riveting. The film ruse is so bold—and the stakes so high—that you can’t help but be invested. The conveyance of a particular time and place, aided greatly by the incorporation of authentic news footage, is fascinating. Yes, you really could drive down the street and see a hanged corpse dangling over the street from a crane.
But Affleck has always been a Hollywood guy, and he’s unable to resist going Hollywood with the whole business. Thus does he overdo the period specificity, for example, by wantonly peppering the soundtrack with ’70s hits (although I did like extended use of Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away” (dig that song)).
But this is a venial sin compared to the cardinal ones he commits by polluting the film’s second half with ever more serendipities, complications, and near misses that feel increasingly manufactured as we approach the film’s laughable climax. It’s a real shame, because the true story is so good that such embellishments only serve to hijack the drama.
But Affleck hooks us with his attention real-life detail in the film’s first half (stay through the closing credits to see how impressively he recreates several authentic images and moment on a shot-for-shot basis), and so we’re invested enough in the outcome that we hang in through a lot of bogus Hollywood dialog and the ever-increasingly implausibility. It really happened, after all. Affleck’s success in making us understand this wins out over all the failure of his unnecessary fictionalization. Ultimately Argo is not a great film, but it is an enjoyable—and, for all its falsehoods, informative—piece of work.
Argo is playing at the Art Theatre of Long Beach (2025 E. 4th Street, LB 90804). For info on show times call (562) 438-5435 or visit arttheatrelongbeach.com.