Ben Affleck's nearly perfect new movie Argo plays with contrasts quite a lot. Again and again, the fake space opera film that the CIA is creating in Affleck's film is juxtaposed with depressing real-life events, like the Iranian hostage crisis and America's Carter-era malaise. Affleck takes the then-brand new myth of Star Wars and puts it alongside the slowly tarnishing myth of American invulnerability.
And in the process, Affleck shows one reason why Star Wars was like a burst of Force energy to the American soul. Minor spoilers ahead...
As a historical film, Argo is pretty much flawless. Affleck does a great job of transporting you back to the world of 1979 and 1980, when Vietnam still sat heavy on America's mind. You can practically smell the unleaded gasoline and feel the threads of the polyester clothing. Affleck's script does a great job of immersing you in the context of the Iranian revolution, delivering a lot of important backstory about the Shah of Iran that many people are probably hearing for the first time: the Iranians had a democratically elected prime minister in the early 1950s, who wanted to take the Iranian oil industry away from the Americans and Brits and give it to the Iranian people. So we mounted a bloody coup and installed a brutal dictator, who tortured the shit out of his people. The hostage crisis was payback for our Eisenhower-era shenanigans.
That original sin underlies everything that happens in this movie's story, and it keeps being brought up in different ways. The ugliness of American power, our hubris, led to a situation that we couldn't just overpower our way out of: 52 American embassy staff were held hostage for 444 days, until finally an agreement was reached.
And the story of Argo is based on a real operation, that was kept classified until 1997. Six Americans escaped from the embassy when it was attacked by the Iranians, and went and hid out in the Canadian embassy. The State Department and the CIA mooted various schemes to get them out, including disguising them as visiting English teachers or agriculture experts. But instead, exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (played by Affleck in the film) came up with a wild idea: Pretend to be a Canadian film crew making a cheesy science fiction movie, and considering Tehran as a location.
The actual story of Mendez and his fake movie is considerably simplified for Affleck's film. There's no mention that Mendez's fake movie was based on Roger Zelazny's classic novel Lord of Light, or that its original producers had tried to film at an elaborate location that would then be turned into a science fiction theme park. Instead, Affleck reimagines the fake science fiction movie as something purer and simpler: a Star Wars knock-off, one of many that were created in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Fans of Roger Zelazny might be sad about that choice — but it actually allows Affleck to capture the moment when we were falling in love with George Lucas' creation, which was also a moment of doubt about American power and our amazing destiny.
Mendez has a son, who's mostly defined by his love of things like Planet of the Apes and Star Wars, and whose action figures are lovingly depicted in a few scenes, including a lengthy montage at the end of the film. Mendez's relationship with his son, who's living with Mendez's estranged wife, is mostly built on a shared love of fantasy epics. The wonder, the faith, with which Mendez's kid greets actors in rubber ape masks on his television screen is contrasted with Mendez's weariness and cynicism.
But Affleck also takes the opportunity to juxtapose the shiny, silly pew-pew-pew energy of science fiction with the messiness of real-life mythology. There's a great sequence where actors in elaborate alien costumes do a public table read of the screenplay to the fake science fiction movie, also called Argo, which is intercut with young revolutionaries giving passionate political speeches in Tehran. After a while, the space-opera posturing and the revolutionary speechifying form a strong contrast, and yet the rhetoric sounds more similar over time.
And once Mendez gets to Tehran, he's faced with the necessity of explaining the heroic story of his film — about fighting for freedom, about saving the galaxy from a great evil — to an endless succession of Iranian officials, soldiers and just plain thugs. The real-life danger that Mendez and the "houseguests" are in gets juxtaposed with the elaborate fantasy of liberation and fighting for survival that he's trying to spin into a cover story for his charges. It culminates in an absolutely spellbinding scene at the airport, involving the movie storyboards that Mendez brought along. In the end, Mendez's operation only succeeds because fantasy is like a universal language — his story is full of holes, but the desire to believe in this glamorous space adventure wins people over.
Affleck's direction is strong enough here that I'm now quite sad that Warner Bros. didn't have enough blackmail material to get him to direct their Justice League film. But the cast is pretty much uniformly terrific, including Alan Arkin and John Goodman as a pair of wise-ass Hollywood guys who make Mendez's con work. (They create a private catch-phrase among themselves, "Argo fuck yourself," and it never stops being funny.) Also superb: Bryan Cranston as Mendez's CIA boss.
The Iranian hostage crisis was a demoralizing time in America's recent history, a spectacle of captives that couldn't just be rescued by two dudes, two droids, an old Jedi and a Wookiee. Affleck does a great job of placing the darkness of that moment alongside our eagerness to believe in the galaxy far, far away — and showing just how it was that we all came to believe that science fiction could be the instrument of our liberation.