2018 Film Essays

Telling Stories in Order to Survive: ‘Argo’

“A story is a story until people believe it. Then that story is called the truth. And the truth now is, according to the White House, that 50 Americans are prisoners in a sixth century shithole because this agency missed the warning signs.”

Ben Affleck’s Argo is a fictionalised version of a true story about a fake movie. It is a Hollywood picture examining Hollywood pictures, a meta-tale of American myth-making. It is a Chinese box of stories within stories. Maybe somewhere in the middle lies the truth. Maybe all we have is the boxes, empty spaces for us to fill with our best ideas and best intentions.

On the fourth of November 1979, an angered crowd of militants and protesters stormed the American embassy in Iran and took 52 American hostages. This was the Iran Hostage Crisis which would dominate America’s news cycles and cultural consciousness for the next 444 days. It was a “locked room” story, taught with the tension of the hostages’ uncertain fates and a Cold War atmosphere already on the brink of its breaking point. In the midst of the chaos, six Americans fled the embassy just ahead of the crowds and were sheltered by the nearby Canadian ambassadors. With the eyes of the world watching, the CIA hatched a madcap scheme to bring their people home: concocting a fake movie called Argo and sending exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) into Iran with fake identities for each of the six, allowing them all to pose as members of a Canadian film crew who were in Tehran for a location scout.

“This is what? The part where we say it’s so crazy it might actually work?” asks one astonished crew member” when Mendez first explains the plan. In the end, that’s exactly what it is: a scheme so audacious, so over the top, so dreamily detached from reality that only Hollywood could possibly come up with it. The perfect cover.

Argo mostly divides itself between the Hollywood experts Mendez enlists to help him sell the authenticity of his fake movie and the expatriates’ endeavours to remain calm and undiscovered. It offers the film a mixture of levity and tension, the glitz and goofiness of Tinseltown side by side with the nail-biting espionage of the rescue mission. The juxtaposition balances the film tonally, but it also points towards the messy relationship between reality and representation which the film is always circling.

Mendez’s experts are make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin): both award-winners and old hands in the Hollywood game, never more than a few words away from a world-weary zinger about the town where they make their living. For Chambers, the idea of trying to fake it in Hollywood is as natural as trying to swim in water. “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything?” he asks Mendez, “You’ll fit right in.” Siegel is more skeptical of the plan, not because he holds a different view of the film industry, but because he sees it in exactly the same way: “You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everybody lies for a living?” Either way, they agree that this is a place built on deception.

After they have settled on the script that will best fit their cover story — a Star Wars knock-off with Arabian Nights vibes named Argo — Siegel accompanies Mendez to the meeting to secure the rights. When the author tries to haggle for a higher price by suggesting that a new market trend for large scale science-fiction has inflated the value of his work, Siegel talks him down to Mendez’s offer by way of a bullshit story about his “good friend” Warren Beatty. In Hollywood, the audience learns, fictions are spun on both sides of the screen. Here, you are only as good as the story you tell, no better, no worse.

And mostly that’s what we expect from the epicentre of America’s film industry. We don’t look to it for a window onto reality but for a Vaseline-smeared lens that will soften the picture into something we more comfortably look at. We expect the footage to be carefully shot and edited to show us some things and obscure others. We want to be told who the heroes are and see them triumph. We are happy for the end credits to roll with the world saved and the stars embracing, happy to call that an ending so we don’t have to concern ourselves with what happens next. It’s what we go to the movies for, at least some of the time.

This desire for comfortable deception isn’t harmful in and of itself but, when the stories being told intersect with reality, the distortion can be meaningful. Argo is a film about real world events, dealing with America’s fraught relationship with the Middle Eastern nations it has spent decades entangled with. And it is a movie about how movies get made and how stories get told. It is the process and the product of a storytelling system rooted in a specific part of the world.

Affleck’s film opens with a quick guide to Iran’s political history told via colourful storyboards and voice-over narration. It immediately calls attention to the fact that it is a movie, precisely engineered to represent events in a certain way. As it does so, it owns to an understanding of history that lays the blame for Iran’s political strife firmly at America’s feet. It shows a good leader deposed by US (and UK) forces and replaced with a cruel puppet who let his people starve so that he could live a life of outlandish opulence, and retained control over his country through torture and terror. After the narration is complete, the camera swoops in to its first live-action shots, gliding above the assembled crowd outside the American embassy as they prepare to seize it.

Without context, the crowd would appear as nothing more than a seething rabble who were about to attack a building filled with frightened citizens and civil servants. But with this brief prologue, viewers are given an explanation for their fury. One can understand why they burn the stars and stripes, why they idolise a man like the Ayatollah — cruel, zealous and dogmatic — because he offers them a chance to oust their invaders and demand justice for those who trespassed against them. Argo is about a great American caper in which a cast of white heroes outwit a brutal Middle Eastern regime: it could very easily have devolved into masturbatory jingoism. Instead, it paints a picture that is darker, less clear and more complex.

It is true that the Iranians themselves are almost completely side-lined in a movie which takes place largely in Iran, and which takes enough artistic license elsewhere that this can be taken only as a filmmaking decision and not a historical necessity. But their brief appearances are highly significant. When Mendez speaks with the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance to seek approval for his film, the minister is quick to understand the appeal his country has to Western filmmakers: “I see. The exotic orient. Snake charmers, flying carpets.” When the “crew” meet with another official later on, he smilingly asks their would-be Director, Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), if he is making a “Foreign Bride Film.”

“A film where a foreign bride comes to Iran but she doesn’t understand the language or the customs and there is a misunderstanding and laughs…”

As Anders flounders, the official’s smile vanishes while his eyes interrogates the American’s face. Both Iranians are well aware of how their culture is exoticised and othered in American movies: reduced to colourful background details to be lapped up by armchair tourists and comedic “fish-out-of-water” tales to draw laughs from how strange and backwards these other parts of the world are. They have spent their lives watching their country being politically and culturally manipulated bythe West. In these brief moments, they hold power over some of those who have been complicit in their oppression. They don’t act cruelly, they don’t seek vengeance. But they let the moment hang for a minute, they make everyone sit with the power dynamic between their nations and everything it entails, with the privilege of having been born on one side of that imbalance. And then they let it pass.

When Argo became a Best Picture winner, it was hailed for its technical craft and regarded largely as that year’s “safe” pick. Most coverage was concerned more with the meta-narrative of Affleck’s creative renaissance or with nit-picking the film’s “true story” credentials than with the content. And while the moral shading it applies in scenes like these is perhaps not enough to term the movie “radical,” there is certainly something subversive about it. Movies about movies that succeed at the Oscars tend to be victory laps for the industry, but Argo‘s depiction of Hollywood is no simple celebration.

When Jim Emerson wrote about it for Roger Ebert’s website, he concluded that the film’s main theme was “how movies enter, transform and create history, regardless of “what actually happened.”” Film has been a major tool in the construction of America’s identity for a long time, used as an effective way to reach back into the nation’s past and remodel it to suit the tastes of the viewing generation. When America wanted to tell its own superhero origin story, it looked to the Frontier to spin yarns of larger-than-life heroes who stood for honour, strength and duty, even while they were stranded in the sun-baked expanse of a savage land. No one did this more effectively than John Wayne and Henry Ford, the actor/director duo who would link up time and again to tell tales of stoic, plain-spoken men setting the world to rights. Wayne’s swaggering, stoic characters became avatars for a nostalgic idea of a past America. One where men were men and women knew their place. One where criminals were dealt hot lead instead of “understanding.” One where order prevailed only when a strong-jawed man sat at the head of the dinner table, stood in the church pulpit, wore the policeman’s badge and ruled over the nation.

Without him, these films assured us, there was only chaos.

As the Cold War incited nationalist zeal and a need to mythologise the United States as the lone bastion of Godly order in a world infected by Communist evil, Wayne became an angrily vocal enemy of all things left wing, drawing on his status as a symbol of traditional, conservative, God-fearing America. The fact that he had dodged the draft by playing soldier out in Hollywood rather than risking actual warfare never seemed to matter. His audience knew the version of him that loomed down from giant screens. His story had been so well told that the truth no longer mattered.

Trumbo (2015) showed a little of this, with David James Elliott portraying the iconic gunslinger. Rolling back the decades for an authentically re-created picture of America’s recent past and taking advantage of an illustrious cast to rattle off dry one-liners, Trumbo’s tale of McCarthy-era moviemakingshares a lot of DNA with Argo, and even a couple of cast members. Its film industry is as rife with liars and con men — it runs on the same class of bullshit. Even as political censorship throws the characters’ world into disarray, it offers a version of Classic Hollywood in which moviemakers are valiant heroes. Lead by Cranston’s ingratiatingly cartoonish Dalton Trumbo, the movie drips with nostalgia for a bygone era of Hollywood greatness and nobility. When Hollywood makes movies about itself, even those aimed at criticizing parts of it, it inevitably tends to romanticise a lot of its own legacy.

While Trumbo shows Hollywood’s finest working diligently to battle fascism and scoop up Oscars, Argo depicts the industry in a much less glamorous light. When Mendez first flies out to meet with Chambers in L.A., an establishing shot of his new locale shows the famous hilltop Hollywood sign. Its once pearly white letters are now a dilapidated wreck, half-destroyed and wholly shorn of their previous allure. In the same year that the Iran Hostage Crisis took place, Joan Didion released her famous essay collection The White Album: this sign belongs to her Hollywood, her America, not Trumbo’s. A place where the Free Love era of the 60s has warped into something more sinister. A place where the world’s first fully televised war has just concluded and the screens in people’s homes no longer serve to reassure them. A place where grizzly murders befall pregnant woman in Hollywood homes. A place where counter culture and mind expansion have eroded faith in the old order but struggled to replace it with anything new.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The most famous line from Didion’s revered collection. Sometimes we look to others to tell the story for us. When we need a story big enough to cover an entire nation, we often look to Hollywood. Argo is about those stories and the people that tell them.

In Didion’s era of televised horrors, Hollywood has become absurd in a way that one particular sequence in Argo homes in on. In an attempt to build the legitimacy of their fake movie, Siegel and Chambers arrange a press event where the film’s full script will be read through by actors in full costume. The girls are all in shimmering space-age lingerie, the guys are decked out as space captains, furry monsters and shiny robots. Waiters bus champagne flutes around the room while cameras flash, reporters yelp out questions and all the actors smile their perfect smiles. Cross-cut with this sequence is another table reading, this time of statements delivered by Iran’s new regime. Their words are hostile, their voices charged with controlled fury. These speeches are stone-faced reminders that the rest of the world does not disappear when the theatre lights go down, that their struggles rage on while Americans drink and smile. The denouement of this juxtaposition shows a group of hostages dragged into a basement and subjected to a mock execution: actors in full costume, playing make believe in the grimmest manner imaginable.

“John Wayne’s in the ground six months, this is what’s left of America” snarls Siegel as he watches the Hostage Crisis unfold. He’s a Hollywood veteran, fully aware and deeply cynical of its fictions and how they get made. And yet even he can’t help but long a little for the safe, stable world the old pictures showed when the one he finds himself in seems in such disarray.

But Argo doesn’t offer it, at least not quite. The film’s ending is, for the most part, textbook Hollywood. The six Americans sit anxiously on the plane until the intercom announces that they have officially left Iranian airspace. Then Affleck the director provides the old movie magic one-two punch where the finale cuts between those directly involved hugging and laughing in relief, and those back in the control room (Chambers and Siegel in their L.A. office, the CIA agents who co-ordinated the mission) whooping and shaking hands, lighting cigars and pouring drinks. The soundtrack swells as the six are re-united with their loved ones and awarded medals by the President himself. Mendez and his estranged wife embrace. He watches Battlestar Galactica with his son.

Mostly, the film’s swansong is played perfectly to the tune of a Hollywood “Happily Ever After” — a warm and fuzzy anthem that lets us celebrate our American heroes for their wits and their courage and their triumph over an Eastern enemy. But then a few off notes slide in to disrupt the melody. As each individual character’s story is wrapped up in the closing montage, Affleck also provides a final glimpse of the young Iranian woman named Sahar (Sheila Vand) who worked as a maid in the Canadians’ home. She was suspected of having figured out the true identities of their houseguests and viewed as a threat to their security, but when the police came calling, she risked her own life to cover for them, buying vital time for their escape. At the end, she marches slowly across the border into Iraq amongst a haggard crowd of refugees. She has escaped Iran, but the dramatic irony of watching her seek refuge from the unrest caused by American intervention by moving to Iraq is heartbreaking. It undercuts the film’s various happy endings with a poignant reminder of the people left behind. Argo allows you to enjoy the CIA’s outlandish caper, but it also confronts you with the ambivalence of the larger picture.

“He said you were a great American” Bryan Cranston’s CIA chief tells Mendez as he informs him that he will be receiving the Intelligence Medal of Merit for his role in the Argo operation. “A great American what?” Mendez asks. He knows that his work was good, that he saved six lives that likely would have been lost without him. He risked his own life to do so when he didn’t have to, so “great” seems fair.  But he’s left unsure as to what the rest of it means, what a “great American” is when all his work served only to rescue a handful of people from a  crisis his own government caused. To understand that part, you have to still hold some idea of “American-ness” to believe the old stories about the Land of the Free. Mendez knows he can’t be John Wayne, he can’t just ride off into the sunset with that swaggering conviction of his own righteousness. He can’t dismiss the people he outsmarted as just “enemies.” The story has to be more complex than that, the ending can’t be so tidy.

Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.