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Saturday, 8 December 2012

The movie Argo is a triumph of production design, recreating the look and sound of Teheran, Washington, and Hollywood in 1980. Which is absolutely necessary for the picture to work since the story is so outlandish that without complete realism in everyday details it would seem like Hollywood bullshit.

Director Ben Affleck was nine years old when the Iran hostage crisis began. He was thus recreating the milieu of his childhood, from new Star Wars action figures to grown men in three-piece suits. Early on there’s a scene in which his character watches television, and he made sure to show us the man standing up and clicking the dial from one VHF station to another. Every time the scene shifts to an office, we hear the busy sound of a Selectric typewriter. With no answering machines in sight (though they were on the market), the story’s telephone connections become even more tenuous.

During the closing credits, the filmmakers show off their work, pairing period photographs of the Iranian Revolution or decaying Hollywood with their careful recreations of the same sights.

Those credits also show the fake passports of the real American diplomats at the center of Argo’s story, and their haircuts really did look like that. Again, such details helped immensely to make them seem real since we see little of those characters beyond their plight. Affleck’s own performance as CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez consists mainly of looking serious in a beard. The acting energy comes from the pacing and the supporting cast of pros: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, and Victor Garber.

It’s disappointing, therefore, to learn that the movie’s realism in little things masks big liberties with what actually happened. The movie’s basic concept is true: Mendez and the CIA used the production of a science-fiction epic in turnaround called Argo as cover to fly six American diplomats out of Teheran.

But the exciting scenes—the last-minute interventions, the Republican Guards tumbling to what’s happening, the airport chase—are completely fictional. The Tony Mendez character arc, from separation back into his family’s bosom and from professional exile back to being a CIA hero, also don’t seem to reflect reality. Argo is a movie about Hollywood bullshit proving useful in the real world that’s actually built of Hollywood bullshit.

In real life, all of the challenges in the movie’s tense, exciting third act had already been cleared away through the least exciting activity American filmmakers can probably imagine: careful, quiet work by Canadian bureaucrats.

One visual element of the real story that didn’t make it into Argo consists of Jack Kirby’s designs for the planned epic and its related theme park, Science Fiction Land. This PDF from the Kirby Museum uses Kirby’s drawings to illustrate interviews about that grand project. The image above is the original announcement that the movie would start filming soon.

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