Argo, the new thriller directed by and starring Ben Affleck, takes place during Iran's Islamic Revolution and tells the true story of a risky, outlandish scheme to get six U.S. embassy workers out of the country by having them pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi Star Wars rip off.
With an impressive 91 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, Argo has been receiving some Oscar buzz, with some critics claiming it's one of the year's best films.
While I enjoyed Argo and its mix of international intrigue with winking jabs at the film industry, I was often distracted by the fact that the turmoil that put the embassy workers in danger was the result of blowback caused by the U.S. and UK's covert operation to oust Iran's popular, progressive, secular, democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. And if the U.S. and UK hadn't stuck their noses in, Iran, the Middle East and much of the world would probably be quite different than they are today.
Watch my ReThink Review of Argo below (transcript following).
After starting hot and later becoming a punchline, Ben Affleck has engineered a pretty amazing career turnaround as a respected director with Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and now with Argo, which tells the recently-declassified true story of a CIA agent named Tony Mendez who concocted and led a scheme involving a fake movie production to get six U.S. embassy workers out of Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the resulting hostage crisis. While Argo is definitely a solid movie that's worth seeing, while I was watching it, there were two things I couldn't get out of my mind, which I'll get to in a second.
A bearded Affleck plays Mendez, an ex-filtration expert who's on the outs with the CIA, as well as his wife whom he's separated from. When six U.S. embassy workers in Iran manage to escape the embassy before its overrun by revolutionaries and hole up at the private residence of the Canadian ambassador, Mendez is brought on as an advisor. When he learns how bad the CIA's plan is to extract them, he comes up with an outlandish plan: pass the workers off as members of a Canadian film crew on a location scout for a sci-fi Star Wars ripoff called Argo. But to make this story believable, Mendez has to create a fake production, complete with a script, storyboards, and poster, with the help of a Hollywood producer (played by Alan Arkin) and a prosthetics artist (played by John Goodman) who had worked with the CIA in the past.
Argo is definitely worth seeing, with a solid supporting cast, which also includes Bryan Cranston as Mendez's boss. The film also has a nice amount of humor to it, most of which is directed at Hollywood, which is part of the reason why Argo is Affleck's most critically-acclaimed movie to date since critics love stuff that pokes fun at the industry. And during the closing credits, you can see photos taken during the revolution that the production went to great lengths to accurately recreate for the look and feel of that period.
However, I often found myself wondering whether Argo is a great movie, or if it's simply a competent retelling of a really great, compelling story. While all of the actors do a good job, none of the performances particularly stand out, though Cranston is nicely frantic and Arkin and Goodman are good at essentially playing themselves as two Hollywood veterans. There's nothing about the film that struck me as being conspicuously inventive or creative, and while there are certainly some very tense moments, it would've been stranger if they hadn't been tense considering what actually happened.
But the thing that nagged at me most was the circumstances surrounding this whole story. Let's not forget, the Iranian Revolution was a massive case of blowback caused by the U.S. and UK orchestrating a coup d'etat of the popular, progressive, democratically-elected Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, then backing a brutal, corrupt, anti-democratic monarch who was then overthrown in 1979's Iranian Revolution by Ayatollah Khomeini, who turned Iran into the anti-west Islamic Republic giving the U.S. so much trouble today.
While Mendez showed tremendous courage in risking his life to help the embassy six escape, and it certainly is a harrowing tale, I couldn't help feeling like it was the U.S. government barely trying to clean up a tiny part of the mess they created out of their own greed, arrogance, and ignorance, where the real victims were the Iranian people who had their freedom and future hijacked. Argo is a good film that's worth seeing, and it doesn't make excuses or attempt to whitewash what the US did in ousting Mossadegh and backing the Shah. But I couldn't help feeling like it focuses on a tasty crumb of what really was a shit sandwich the U.S. helped make that we and much of the world are still eating.