Argo, F--k Yourself
This year’s worst Best Picture nominee.
Photo by Keith Bernstein—© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Not every critic was pleased to see Argo win Best Picture last night. After its nomination was announced last month, Kevin B. Lee trashed the film. His article is reprinted below.
Now that Ben Affleck’s Iran hostage drama Argo has garnered seven Oscar nominations to add to its mantel, upon which already sit $110 million in domestic box office, near unanimous acclaim from critics, and even a whisper campaign for Affleck to run for John Kerry’s soon-to-be vacated Senate seat, it needs to be said: Argo is a fraud.
Sure, Argo’s an easily consumable mashup of well-worn genres (exotic adventurer, political caper flick, derelict daddy redemption movie, Hollywood insider satire) whose geopolitical themes make it feel smart and important. One could even say that it’s good at what it does: giving these old Hollywood formulas a fresh coat of vintage 1970s paint (color: avocado). But this tactic is what makes the film not merely overrated, but reprehensible. Its modest achievements point to larger failures both in the film and in Hollywood’s ability to regard the world honestly.
Perhaps my disgust wouldn’t be as intense if it weren’t for the potentially great film suggested by Argo’s opening sequence: a history of pre-revolutionary Iran told through eye-catching storyboards. The sequence gives a compelling (if sensationalized) account of how the CIA’s meddling with Iran's government over three decades led to a corrupt and oppressive regime, eventually inciting the 1979 revolution. The sequence even humanizes the Iranian people as victims of these abuses. This opening may very well be the reason why critics have given the film credit for being insightful and progressive—because nothing that follows comes close, and the rest of the movie actually undoes what this opening achieves.
Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran, the film settles into a retrograde “white Americans in peril” storyline. It recasts those oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde, the same dark-faced demons from countless other movies— still a surefire dramatic device for instilling fear in an American audience. After the opening makes a big fuss about how Iranians were victimized for decades, the film marginalizes them from their own story, shunting them into the role of villains. Yet this irony is overshadowed by a larger one: The heroes of the film, the CIA, helped create this mess in the first place. And their triumph is executed through one more ruse at the expense of the ever-dupable Iranians to cap off three decades of deception and manipulation.
Argo makes the Iran hostage crisis, one of the most cataclysmic episodes in U.S. foreign affairs in the last 50 years, a mere backdrop to a silver-lining subplot—one that even Robert Anders, one of the Argo hostages, admitted was a “footnote.” The film thus distorts and belittles an event that transformed U.S. history. Ironically, the larger narrative of the hostage crisis would make for a more compelling movie from both a plot and action standpoint: A great filmmaker could make an amazing sequence of Operation Eagle Claw, a failed rescue mission that resulted in two helicopter crashes, several dead U.S. soldiers, and a subsequent overhaul of U.S. military operations. Imagine the last act of Zero Dark Thirty, but with an unhappy ending.
I’m not naive. I know such a film wouldn’t go over well with the home audience. And I’m not demanding that Hollywood make a movie about Iran as bracing and uncommercial as Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, my top movie of 2012 and a true reflection of Iran's reality, using all the resourceful invention that's missing in Argo. But apologists will argue that a film like Argo is the best we could hope for in depicting this episode of history, which makes the film less about history than about our national addiction to happy endings in movies. Argo is ostensibly about how a fake movie saves lives, and thus about the redemptive power of movies at large. But since it’s about a fake movie, it’s not really about moviemaking—it’s about the power of Hollywood bullshit. Instead of a real filmmaker, we get Alan Arkin’s wise-guy hack producer dispensing chestnuts over how to create hype and attention to make it seem like a film is important— lessons Argo’s promoters no doubt took to heart. (My favorite Argo publicity factoid is that Ben Affleck majored in Middle Eastern studies. No one mentions that he didn’t graduate.) Arkin’s remarks may very well be an accurate insight into how Hollywood really works, but they reflect the movie’s smug complacency over its ability to pull its gilded wool over our eyes.
Looking at the runaway success of this film, it seems as if critics and audiences alike lack the historical knowledge to recognize a self-serving perversion of an unflattering past, or the cultural acumen to see the utterly ersatz nature of the enterprise: A cast of stock characters and situations, and a series of increasingly contrived narrow escapes from third world mobs who, predictably, are never quite smart enough to catch up with the Americans. We can delight all we like in this cinematic recycling act, but the fact remains that we are no longer living in a world where we can get away with films like this—not if we want to be in a position to deal with a world that is rising to meet us. The movies we endorse need to rise to the occasion of reflecting a new global reality, using a newer set of storytelling tools than this reheated excuse for a historical geopolitical thriller.
Late in the movie, Affleck’s CIA agent dazzles Iranian soldiers at a checkpoint with storyboards from his fake sci-fi production. The scene plays into the hoary sentiment uttered at every Academy Awards ceremony, one surely to be repeated with each Oscar Argo wins: People across the world are movie fans at heart. But like Oscar night, the scene is really a reflection of Hollywood’s hubris in trumpeting its own power. This moment, of course, is more bullshit, a self-serving fantasy concocted by the screenwriter. But it reminds us of Argo’s opening sequence, when it was us dazzled into submission by a series of storyboards. A razzle-dazzle con job worthy of its CIA subject, Argo thinks of you just like it thinks of those buffoonish Iranian soldiers: too easily impressed with a flimsy fabrication to see beyond it.
Kevin B. Lee is a film critic, filmmaker, and producer of more than 100 video essays on film and television. He is founding editor and chief video essayist at Fandor Keyframe and founding partner of dGenerate Films. Kevin has contributed to Roger Ebert Presents at the Movies, Sight & Sound, and the Chicago Sun-Times. He tweets at @alsolikelife.