Egon Yes on Argo

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Egon Yes gives analysis of Ben Affleck’s Argo

—Fargo, did you say?

—Argo.

—Fargo’s a great film.

—No, we’re asking you about Argo. You know, the film that’s about the hostage crisis for the US embassy people in Iran circa 1980. Were you born by then?

—I think so, but I’d have to ask my mum to make sure.

—Mr Yes, would you stop pussy-footing around and get to the matter in hand?

—What was the question again? Sorry, only joshing like Brolin, ha ha! In fact let’s start there.

Synopsis: A CIA agent attempts to rescue a clutch of US embassy staff in Iran who have escaped the hostage takers in the 444-day US embassy hostage crisis in Iran. The escaped staff take refuge with the Canadian ambassador. In order to get this group out of Iran an elaborate cover is created by pretending that a science fiction film called Argo is in production and is to be filmed in locations around Iran. The time is 1979-80. Washington, Langley, Los Angeles Istanbul and Tehran are where the action takes place.

Ben Affleck, for whatever reason, chose to be the star of Argo, the film he directed. That was a mistake. Josh Brolin would have added thought and gravitas to the role. Affleck did well. But he did not do well enough because he is a kind of cardboard hero around whom the others work out their tensions and dramas. While I enjoyed watching his beard tour round a passably recreated Tehran of the time, I felt I was watching the director of the movie and not the protagonist of the story. Something was missing. Every time Affleck cogitates I could not but help think that he was thinking of what he was going to do with his camera or actors in the next scene. I felt his directorial burden, not the weight of his character’s shoulders, broad though they are. I didn’t feel the nasty brew of a hostage crisis from his character despite the smart lines that made him look like he authentically knew what he was talking about.

The inaccuracies in the film have probably been revealed like the front hair of young female Tehranis who constantly lift their ‘roosari’ head-scarves to cool their brains in a culture three millennia old at least, and almost doubled over under the weight of its learning. The main inaccuracy for me —SPOILER ALERT—is at the end of the film where the embassy escapee, given cover as part of the sci-fi film, who speaks Farsi buys time by playing spaceships and making spaceship sounds and gestures. In truth he needed two words that almost everybody would have understood: Jang-e-Setareh. To translate literally War of the Stars and to translate: Star Wars.

One of my disappointments in leaving Iran as a child was that I never got to see Star Wars. It was massive in Tehran, at least. I have never seen such four-person-wide, round-the-block queues in my life. As a result of the demand for the film, every showing was booked and we were leaving the country. We’re talking summer of ’78. By the time I was in London, Star Wars was a narrative and a game kids played. There was no DVD or NetAffliction in those days.

So Argo has deep flaws in its relation to that Star Wars moment in world history. The revolution had happened. The look feels right. But the nuances are wrong. Is the film ‘Islamophobic’? Perhaps: in the sense that Hollywood often has a black and white take on goodies and baddies and Islam and indeed ‘organized’ religion, too, is frequently bad, in Hollywood’s hedonistic and lecherous eyes. However, Argo wants to portray the bearded Iranian men as one-dimensional, humourless, lacking hospitality, a cause for hatred. The few Iranian heroes are female but whatever the case the Iranians are more cardboard than the Affleck character. There’s a lot of cardboard in this film. Alcohol is one such cardboard motif that crops up again and again as some kind of saviour. It’s a big up yours to people who believe that a lot of bad can come from that liquid.

Perhaps Affleck should have included some outtakes at the end of the film of himself stumbling around drunkenly barking incoherent orders at a poster of Jennifer Lopez. (I’m deeply sorry for trying to be funny here but I hope I’ve conveyed some idea that the alcohol motif is like the Argo joke that runs through the film, just a touch wearing. Nuance, detail, just a little bit more.)

Having made these brief observations, Argo is full of suspense (perhaps too much), nostalgia for that late 70s period and it’s very entertaining. It’s a good film with a lot going for it. If Josh Brolin had been the star it would have made the film deeper and Affleck would have had more time to concentrate on the nuances and small, important details that could have made the film much better.

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