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Argo, A Second Viewing.

Amir here. There are two days left until the Oscars, but no doubt as to what name is called when the final envelope is opened at the ceremony. Argo has become a juggernaut, steamrolling through the reason with one industry award after another and is now undoubtedly in the driver's seat. As is par for the annual course, in the past few weeks, Affleck’s film has been subjected to more criticism than it probably deserves. A film that was once a successful crowd-pleaser, a surprising box-office sensation, a well-made, old-fashioned thriller, is now being touted as the best of the year by the Academy most of us hold in high regard, so naturally expectations have dramatically skyrocketed. 

Recently I rewatched it, hoping to reconsider my initial opinion of the film and find the spark it’d been missing the first time around. It’s not that I disliked Argo then. Quite the opposite, I really enjoyed it. For one thing, Argo’s depiction of Tehran in the early 80s is, on the surface, dead-on. I have my bones to pick with the characterization of Iranians in the film – particularly during the Bazaar sequence – but as a native of Tehran, I have to admit I got a kick out of watching the geography, the atmosphere and the language down to every banner and chant play out so accurately. All the more impressive when you stop to consider that it wasn’t filmed in Iran at all. [More...]

On top of that, Argo may resort to a countless number of Hollywood conceits to rile us up but there’s no denying that its thrills work. Sure, there is no truth to the police cars chasing that Swiss Air plane on the tarmac; the wait for Chambers to pick up his phone didn’t play out the way it does in the film; Iranian kids never had to solve the puzzle of those shredded pieces of paper; but Argo’s not a documentary and we can forgive it the dramatic licenses.

My personal disappointment with Argo was probably a consequence of my unreasonably high expectations. The hostage crisis is one of the defining moments of the 20th century and I’d hoped for an account that dissected the diplomatic machinations and the political aftermath in more detail than Argo does. Terrio’s script is as politically toothless as it can be. It takes a landmark event and uses as a mere backdrop to a film that essentially boils down to a hide and seek and chase and escape tale. It’s disheartening because so much information about the crisis was classified for so long in America and used for propaganda in Iran. It’s hard not to look at Argo as a missed opportunity.

Of course, it’d be inconsiderate of me to criticize a film for something it’s not. Maybe the filmmakers never intended to make a political film in the first place and that’s fair. A good film doesn’t necessarily need several layers of subtext to succeed. In fact, I’d be disingenuous if I pretended that I value a film’s thematic importance over its artistic merits when films like Drive rank so high among my favorites on an annual basis. But my gripe isn’t directed toward Team Affleck; it’s directed toward the award season narrative, because it’s hard to make a convincing argument that Argo’s aura of political importance didn’t play a role in its dominance on the circuit. But dig beneath the film’s surface and it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the “political” thriller tag. It’s a thriller, surely, but how political is it really?

Sahar, the only Iranian "character" in Argo

We all know thrillers aren’t really the Academy’s cup of tea. You can make an argument about The Departed but an indisputable narrative formed around Scorsese that year that made that one unstoppable. Beyond that, policial and crime thrillers are scattered and usually unsuccesful among the nominees. Affleck himself has made two superior films that didn’t catch on as widely as this one did. In a season of mixed signals and unprecedented events along the road, it’s unsurprising that the most enjoyable and agreeable film came out triumphant, but this was also an election year, when politics and inevitably America’s relationship with the Middle East were a prominent talking point. Not just that, there were at least three other films that sparked heated debates in the American political scene. That anyone would hail Argo as a timely addition to the conversation about Iran or as any sort of time capsule for the events of 1980 is baffling to me.

Iran in Affleck’s Argo could well be “the exotic orient” of the fictional Argo, so long as its inhabitants are made to look threatening enough with bearded faces and veiled heads and their language is unfamiliar by the hero who fights against them. The more alien the foreigners appear, the more exciting it will be to escape from them; that’s basically what Argo’s politics comes down to. And in the awards season, consensus always forms around the safest choice. Challenging politics be damned. The Argo plane has taken off and no one can catch it now. 

You can follow Amir on twitter at @Amiresque or read his blog here

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Reader Comments (14)

This was a really great piece, Amir! I didn't know you were from Iran. It's interesting to see your perspective on the representation of Tehran, and admirable that the filmmakers did such a solid job in making it seem authentic. It's not exactly the same, but as a Miami native, I've seen my hometown portrayed dozens of times on film and TV - but not actually. LA is a poor substitute for Miami. Palm trees and Hispanics can only go so far in covering up terrible geography. But, I digress.

When I walked out of the theatre in October after seeing Argo, I loved it. A mid-budget drama, for adults! I'm so used to the bipolar movie environment (tiny sophisticated art films vs. huge juvenile blockbusters) that seeing an intellectually stirring movie meant for mass consumption by adults was an entirely refreshing experience for me. (I had the same feelings coming out of Flight and Lincoln). The long trek towards Oscar night and the Argo juggernaut have threatened to ruin the movie for me, but I'm glad that amid it all, we can still recognize that this was a damn good year for movies. Your favorite might not win, but when does it ever? At least this year's (presumed) winner has the potential to shift Hollywood back to a more sophisticated style of filmmaking. That, to me, is cause for celebration.

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJonny

How good do I think Argo will look in hindsight? Especially when we compare it to the work of other film makers in the same year, who were more ambitious, thoughtful, and tried to say something about the human condition, and were willing to resist coming up with a pat answer?

Dances With Argo
Ordinary Argo
Argo vs Argo
The Greatest Argo on Earth
How Green Was My Argo

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTotally Anonymous

Thank you for saying this is the least of Ben Affleck's films - I haven't heard anyone else say that all season. This "you owe me" campaign from Affleck (thanking the Academy at the Globes, for starters) has left an incredibly sour taste in my mouth, but I thought about revisiting Argo. You nailed some of the issues I had with the film, and I left theaters thinking "that was fine, with some problems." I think I need to step away from this season before a revisit.

You are also right in pointing out there are several films this season dealing with serious issues, but this isn't really one of them. No political points were made. The Ron Howard comparison I've heard seems accurate (and for the record, I really liked Apollo 13). Claiming this as a significant take on our relationship with Iran is about on par with calling The King's Speech an in depth analysis of speaking disabilities or The Artist (which I loved) a comprehensive take on another era in film. The Academy rarely matches my favorite film of the year - perhaps nominations for intriguing films are enough. (Even so, I will CHEER if Lincoln or Life of Pi pull off a huge BP upset.)

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Totally Anonymous: Don't forget "Forrest Argo," "Driving Miss Argo," or "Million Dollar Argo."

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

Amir, what a great analysis of what's going on behind the collective pat on the back we're seeing this awards season. I think history will judge Argo's inevitable Oscar victory quite harshly. As it should. In a year that's been this stellar for film, seeing Affleck's cheeky little romp getting crowned over the vastly superior Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Amour and Life of Pi chills my cockles. The irony is that politics will lead to an undeserved Best Picture prize for a politically bereft film.

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

The depiction of Iranians? One of the biggest assets of Argo is that it doesn't treat the "terrorists" as terrorists at all. The Iranians are depicted with dignity and it's shown why they're doing what they're doing. So I have no idea what you're talking about there.

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermma

Spont on! Well Done, Amir!

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRic H

Long comment warning:

But, Amir, when you say things like: " it’s directed toward the award season narrative, because it’s hard to make a convincing argument that Argo’s aura of political importance didn’t play a role in its dominance on the circuit." I'll feel you're doing just what you say you wouldn't. ARGO is either #1 or #2 of the nine nominated films for me (it doesn't make my top 5 or 10, but of the nominees it's at the top) and I like it. My appreciation for it or the fact that I'd vote for it in this admittedly wonky awards season is not driven from any inherently politically motivated sphere especially when I'm neither American, Iranian nor Canadian.

On one hand Affleck has a difficult task where the movie is inherently political and the film is not but I feel I must emphatically object (as we've discussed before) to the script being lambasted for being toothless when it's so explicitly NOT meant to be a political film, at least not mainly. Let's just work from the title downward, the film's name comes from the made-up film which immediately suggests where the crux of the drama lies and even though the film exists as a tool for an act that has its root in diplomacy and politics the political weight is not the main event in the same way that - allow me make an example, albeit a broad one;

THE ENGLISH PATIENT is a film during and after World War II and some of its themes touch on war, like the fate of Laszlo but it's not a world war film. I would not criticise THE ENGLISH PATIENT for not delving into the real issues at the heart of that war in the same way that I feel it's somewhat unfair for Terrio to be criticised for something he isn't putting all his focus on.

Excuse the loggerhea, but I feel vaguely disgruntled when I find the film being held up to a barometer that I find it was never striving for to begin with.

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Andrew - I tried to make my feelings as clear as possible by making a distinction between my "personal" disappointment with it and my disappointment with the awards bodies.
As disheartened as I might be with it, I can't blame the film for not being what it's not and doesn't want to be. I can, however, blame voters for voting for it for the wrong reasons, and I have yet to hear a convincing argument on why the same people who would NEVER go for popcorn pleasures have suddenly had a change of heart this year.

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

"Of course, it’d be inconsiderate of me to criticize a film for something it’s not. Maybe the filmmakers never intended to make a political film in the first place and that’s fair."

No, it's pretty clear that they absolutely intended for their film to have that aura of importance and "politicalness" without any annoying political analysing getting in the way of a neat easily digestible three acts.

And in his various publicity tours Ben Affleck clearly tried to summon that aura of having made an important film that opens conversations.

Which is ludicrous, because Argo is just a silly little film that is allergic to ambiguity and conversations.

I absolutely say this as a fan of it as a piece of entertainment (give or take the last 5 minutes - in fact that entire distant-father-and-husband subplot was not only incredibly underdeveloped but profoundly pretentious and out of place). It still ranks among my Top 20 or 25 films of the year. And there is nothing wrong with voting for it as a slick piece of entertainment. which in its own way is as difficult to pull off as a personal auteurist statement on life and death or whatever. But let's stop pretending it carries some sort of Important Statement about the world we live in.

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Ha, Goran! I don't even remember the absent father-husband subplot! In this case, I think Lincoln succeeds better in terms of dealing with this similar subplot.

Amir, I think you successfully mixes personal feelings with objective analysis, bravo! I think I'm in the same boat as you are. I think "The Town" is Affleck's best work so far. Even though "Argo" is technically his most accomplished, I feel like it's too simplistic in terms of characters and "message".

February 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLars

Lara, you nailed it.

February 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy


Thanks for your piece. I think you've brought many interesting points into the Argo conversation, and I think your thoughts from your second viewing (particularly near the end) were spot on. I saw this movie and hated it because I thought the "suspense" felt so contrived (and thus not entertaining) and, more importantly, because it was politically irresponsible. On the latter point I disagree slightly with your assessment only in the sense that I think Affleck really thought he was making a grand political point--Jimmy Carter's voice over and the little international negotiation blurb during the credits made a really heavy-handed, and in my opinion naive, point: that the U.S. should collaborate more with international allies--which apparently does not include anyone in the "Middle East"--and that such collaboration is possible with democratic presidents who can make the U.S. a "nice" empire to redeem America's "mean" imperial past. This, like you suggest, comes at the expense of complex Iranian characters. The reward for Sahar, who like you said was the only real Iranian character with complex thoughts or actions, was getting shipped to Iraq, seemingly with no network of support, while the U.S. and Canadian characters get to return home to their families (which built on not only the cliched subplot with the son, as others mentioned, but also the one-dimensional crying wives who seemed to be unwitting victims to their husbands' aspirations). The subtext seemed to be: it doesn't matter what happens to Iranians (allies--in the case of Sahar-- or non-allies--in the case of the Airport security) as long as people from the U.S. get to go wherever and do whatever they want! This is NOT the self-congratulatory movie we needed this year, and I am dreading tomorrow because of it.

February 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

catbaskets - I second every word in your assessment.

February 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

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