Perhaps more than any other male American star of his generation, Ben Affleck understands the narrative advantage of having Hollywood on your side. The Good Will Hunting co-screenwriter and co-star won an Oscar at age 25 in large part because he and collaborator Matt Damon, as struggling actors who created their own showcase, had the best behind-the-scenes story of the year (they also had Harvey Weinstein at the end-of-the-century first peak of his powers). Later, in his days as J. Lo arm candy and box office poison — or so the story goes — Affleck bad-decisioned his way onto Hollywood's bad side and felt the full force of the industry's greatest weapon: its publicity machine.
Affleck's experience as both the beneficiary and target of that apparatus informs Argo, his third directorial effort. Set amid the 1979-1980 Iran hostage crisis, Argo is a "gritty" historical drama overwhelmed by its love of Hollywood as an inventor of imaginary narratives with real consequences, a great generator of American bedtime stories whose magic works on suburban kids and foreign enemies alike.
After an Iranian Revolution for Dummies prologue, in which Affleck coyly announces his intention to explore how living history is reduced to iconography by interweaving illustrated storyboards with manufactured "archival" imagery, the movie proper begins with the November 4, 1979, attack on the U.S. embassy in Tehran. While 52 Americans are held hostage, six embassy workers manage to escape, ultimately hiding out at the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Two months later, when the crisis has not blown over, the CIA and state department start plotting to bring both sets of Americans home. With the Canadian-harbored "houseguests" considered the more delicate target — the eyes of the world media are trained on the embassy, while the Iranians are initially unaware that the six Americans are in hiding — CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to review the available strategies. "Exfils are like abortions," Tony says. "You don't want to need one, but when you do, you don't do it yourself."
Determined to smuggle the houseguests out of Iran by disguising them as a film crew on a location scout, Tony enlists the help of John Chambers (John Goodman), a movie makeup artist who has "done contract work for us in the past," and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), an old-school producer Chambers pulls off the lifetime-achievement circuit to give the "production" credibility. (In real life, Chambers won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes; Siegel is a composite character.) Between hokey wisecracks-ribbing industry idiocy, the trio seizes on a dusty, in-turnaround script for a Middle East-set Star Wars rip off called Argo, taking steps to get the trade papers to put their narrative in print. (This covert op's all-purpose catchphrase? "Ar, go fuck yourself.")
Argo lovingly remakes a fascinating moment in Hollywood history to its convenience. Star Wars, the 1977 blockbuster that, Argo argues, so changed the world that it made Mendez's scheme viable, was shot mainly in Tunisia and England. George Lucas and John Dykstra had to invent Industrial Light and Magic because the studios had shut down their own effects houses. By 1980, the Hollywood establishment was in the process of getting its groove back on the backs of Lucas and his fellow "film brats," who had been allowed to temporarily run the asylum during a period of studio system deterioration (represented by Affleck via an anachronistic shot of the once-decayed Hollywood sign, which was actually replaced in 1978).
The spirit of the Hollywood of the 1970s is not just Affleck's partial subject but his evident inspiration. The most telling of many references to movies of the era might be an almost-thrown-away shot of a Vietnam vet on TV declaring that the hostage crisis has made him "mad as hell, like that man screaming on that movie program Network." Affleck later intercuts an Iranian revolutionary press conference with the boozy Hollywood event launched to sell the Argo fiction, belaboring their similarities as "productions," the tools of media creation functioning as tools of warfare on both sides. Before they've launched their own media offensive, Chambers gestures at a TV airing footage of riots in Tehran streets. "You ever think this is all for the cameras?" Siegel responds, "Well, they're getting the ratings."
Affleck's Mendez has a Serpico beard and a dose of similar swagger, without the ambiguity. As director, he has made a fun, tidy entertainment that hits its beats a little too loudly and cleanly. With its walk-and-talk exposition drops and insistent score (drumbeat-crescendo-drumbeat as verse-chorus-verse), the movie moves; if anything, Affleck is concerned with clockwork to a fault. The script is full of temporal straw men, gimmicky turns, and roadblocks designed to ratchet tension at regular intervals, as well as impossible-to-miss symbolism. The first post-prologue shot is of an American flag on fire, and in the final scene, an intact specimen of the same waves behind the hero; even as the protagonists face mortal danger in between, Argo is such a beautiful rendition of Hollywood formula that a happy ending never seems in doubt. It's a movie about a triumph of narrative control that is itself too controlled.
The great movies of the period Argo depicts, even when they were period pieces, nailed something about the American experience in the moment in which they were made. Argo doesn't reflect who we are now so much as it argues for what Hollywood can be. It's an embodiment of the kind of quality adult film that really shouldn't be an endangered species, and it's a love letter from its director and star to the industry that made him, briefly shunned him, and — as the success of The Artist proved last year — loves nothing more than to be loved.