Argo is a really gripping and entertaining movie. By finding a little known subplot of the larger Iran hostage crisis and focusing in on this small, unorthodox rescue mission, director Ben Affleck and his crew give the audience a really enjoyable film that spotlights CIA operative Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), a man who, because of the nature of his job and because of the long-classified status of the mission, never got the attention he deserved for his heroic actions. (In fact, due to fear of retaliation against those still held hostage, all of the credit for the rescue originally went to Canada.)
However, as good as the film is, I couldn’t help but feel that in some ways it was a missed opportunity. There were a few decisions made by Affleck and by writer Chris Terrio that kept it from being as good as it could have been.
As most of you remember, the Iran hostage crisis, which lasted from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981, involved 52 Americans held captive by Iranian revolutionaries who overtook the American Embassy in Tehran. What you may or may not remember is that, in addition to those 52, there were six Americans who escaped the embassy and stayed in hiding until American and Canada could work together to find a way to extract them without getting captured. Most of the details of the rescue mission were kept classified until the Clinton administration.
The cover story Mendez and his CIA coworkers settled on was having the escapees pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi epic titled Argo. To do this, he had to set up a fake film studio, recruiting the help of acclaimed makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).
One of the missed opportunities in the film is the decision to focus the bulk of the story on Mendez instead of the supporting cast. It’s not that he isn’t an interesting guy or worthy of being the star – because he certainly is – it’s just that it ends up shortchanging the other characters in the film.
As a result, we never really get to know the six escapees. They aren’t given enough screen time or enough depth to get a sense of who they were or what their struggle was like. Instead, they are reduced to broad stereotypes instead of actual people. I would have liked to know what the group dynamic was like and what the day-to-day of being free, but in hiding, in a hostile country was like. Did they feel guilty for leaving their coworkers behind? Were they constantly scared? Or did it all start to feel routine after a while?
Keeping them at arm’s length also robs the film of dramatic tension. Because the audience never really gets a sense of who they are, while you are rooting for them to escape, it’s more of a broad notion you feel instead of one rooted in a deep connection to these characters and a personal investment in their survival.
Arkin and Goodman are also shortchanged in screen time, though that decision is a more understandable one. Their subplot isn’t as essential to the overall plot, but the meta commentary they offer on Hollywood – and their performances in general – are easily among the best moments in the film. I can’t help thinking that there are some golden moments featuring their two characters that ended up on the cutting room floor.
While these decisions are regrettable, they are ultimately understandable. These are the sort of things you have to pick and choose when making a film. While I think that the movie would have been better served to give more time to other characters, I realize that’s a personal opinion. Your mileage certainly may vary.
However, the one mistake I think is much more unforgivable is the way the film depicts the end of the story. Without spoiling anything, I’ll simply say that the film goes way too Hollywood at the end. I certainly understand changing details of a true story to make it more cinematic, but the ending felt like something out of an action movie, instead of a real life event.
The real story was dramatic enough. There was no reason to make it over the top. Instead of heightening the drama, it hurts it because it completely took me out of the story. Instead of getting caught up in the tension of the moment, I sat there thinking, “There’s no way this happened like that.”
Still, overall it’s a very good film with a story worth telling. Ben Affleck has really come into his own as a director and he once again serves up a well-crafted story. It just has a few minor flaws that keep it from being truly great.