At first glance, the choice to award Argo the Best Picture award for 2013 might seem a typically self-congratulatory move by the Oscars. The film not only reconstructs and celebrates an American achievement (well, not just an American one – more on that later), but also one in which Hollywood itself plays an integral role: an Oscar-baiting lovechild of The Artist and Lincoln. Fortunately, it’s nowhere near as bad as that might sound – it’s actually quite good. As well as offering a tense and dramatic retelling of an almost unbelievably true story, Argo also reflects on America’s problematic relationship with the Middle East.
In 1979, the American embassy in Tehran is captured by Iranian students, motivated by resentment against US involvement in Iranian politics. Six Americans escape and are sheltered by Canadian diplomats. CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs) conceives of a bizarre plan to get the Americans out of the country. With the help of Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), Mendez establishes an identity as the associate producer of a fake science fiction film called Argo. If all goes smoothly, the diplomats will be able to pass through Iranian airport security disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting for locations.
In Affleck’s hands, the events unfold with high-level suspense in a series of frequent beats. These well-crafted moments make up some of the film’s major highlights; it’s worth seeing if only for these enthralling experiences. That said, there are times when Affleck stacks so many close calls together that the action seems implausible. This would be bad enough for standard fictional fare; for a movie that is clearly taking artistic license with real-life events to manufacture drama, it approaches ridiculousness. It should be stressed, though, that these moments are exceptions rather than the rule.
Argo is the second film set in the Middle East to win the award for Best Picture in recent years, with The Hurt Locker being the first. American identity is bound up in the region, with its international reputation shaped by its record of conduct there. On one level (spoilers ahead), Argo eases American anxieties – presenting a resounding success in a time when many regard its foreign policy with distrust or even disdain.
On another level, though, the film chastises the American public for its attitudes towards foreign countries. In the film’s opening moments, depictions of Iranian protests are contrasted with pictures of storyboards that later transpire to be the designs of the fictional Argo. It is fitting that the fake production is a piece of science fiction. Throughout the film, the wider population watches the drama unfold on television. They might as well be watching dispatches from another planet: dangerous, exotic, distant. Yet, despite highlighting American lack of knowledge about other countries, Argo commits the same sin itself, playing down the significant real-life involvement of Canada. In the end, it’s like a lot of the Best Picture winners: flawed by its attempt to reach a wider audience, but a decent film nevertheless.