RogerBW's Blog

Argo 14 February 2023

2012 historical drama, dir. Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman: IMDb / allmovie. How to get six American State Department employees out of revolutionary Tehran? The CIA pretends to make a film…

Well yes. This is a film in which Hollywood pokes fun at itself, perhaps on more levels than planned. Sure, scriptwriter Chris Terrio could put in the digs about the Hollywood establishment being just as vicious as the incoming Khomeini government. But this whole narrative is wildly distorted from the actual events to conform with two Hollywood standards: the caper frame, in which things go wrong and are saved by brilliant improvisation and hairsbreadth escapes, and the war film frame, where the Americans do all the work while allied countries just look on admiringly.

And when it's about real people, I'd really prefer it to be accurate to those real people and what they did, not some fictional version, unless it's overtly fictional (in which case it can still feel pretty weird).

There's never any doubt that we're in The 1970s here, because they got an extra-large tin of Seventies Look and gave everything two coats. Now sure, all of those men with moustache-and-sideburns and women with great big glasses and press-button phones in lurid colours could be seen in the 1970s… but generally not all at the same time. (Also, the Hollywood sign was repaired in 1978, before any of the events of the film happened.)

But the caper takes over, as the escaping Americans have to talk their way past Revolutionary Guards, who see through the deception just too late to stop them getting on the plane, and charge out guns blazing (though a real official would just have called Tower and told them to halt all takeoffs, maybe scrambling fighters in case the Swissair pilot wanted to be a hero). Here's how Mark Lijek, one of the six, described the actual escape:

Fortunately for us, there were very few Revolutionary Guards in the area. It is why we turned up for a flight at 5.30 in the morning; even they weren't zealous enough to be there that early. The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way. We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador's residence in Bern. It was that straightforward.

Now, sure, that would be anticlimactic. So you don't make it the climax of the film. End it when they're leaving the ambassador's house, on the way to the airport and freedom, and show the actual escape over the closing credits. But no, it's always the simple option, straightforward storytelling with good guys and bad guys. (The Iranians are a monolithic faceless violent mob here; barely any of them even get names.)

The opening narration, explaining how this whole situation was primed by the CIA and MI6 deposing Mossadegh in the 1950s at the behest of western oil companies, feels like something glued on afterwards to what's otherwise an utterly straightforward story of American triumphalism.

Lots of people loved this, and moments were very good, but overall it left a bad taste in my mouth. It feels like the fanfiction the CIA would write about itself.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

  1. Posted by Phil Masters at 12:40pm on 26 March 2023

    There was an interesting commentary on the film by Robert Fisk (not a fan of American triumphalism), who despite all the faults, respected it for nailing the paranoid atmosphere of 1979 Tehran...

    Of course, the film also disregards the other casualty of the real operation - the Hollywood adaptation of Lord of Light.

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