A CIA agent manages to help six Americans stranded in Iran by making them impersonate a Canadian film crew scouting for locations for a Star Wars-esque sci-fi action extravaganza named Argo. Now, this is Iran at a time when Khomeini has just ascended to power, and anti-American sentiment is at its peak. And these guys say they want to shoot a movie there? Does it even sound plausible? Simply put, there is no way in hell someone would’ve green-lighted a movie with such a plot unless it had actually happened. For that matter, it’s a wonder the CIA green-lighted the operation to begin with.
But they did, and it did happen, and Argo tells us how, in scenes of gradually building tension interspersed with moments of levity. We know from the start that lives are at stake here. Affleck wisely realizes that the threat of violence is far more effective than the sight of it, so he ratchets up the tension by showing us angry mobs, men with guns, dead bodies and news reports about the violence, but not too much actual killing. The intent is to convey fear, not shock. And we see all of this through the eyes of the Americans and Canadians — the outsiders, as it were.
The prologue informs us that the public anger stems from private grief over the past decades, for which the Americans were at least partially responsible. It is entirely possible that these stranded Americans know this, even if they weren’t responsible for it. But the film does not explore this possibility — it is concerned with the here and now, where six men and women live in constant fear of discovery and almost-certain death. In a key scene, you see an Iranian shouting at them in Farsi, and the film wisely does not provide us with subtitles (whereas some other conversations in Farsi have them) — we feel just as lost as they are. By focusing on their fear and showing “the other side” through their uncomprehending and fearful gaze, the film makes us sympathize with their plight without thinking any further. One might perhaps wish for a more even-handed treatment in a film that wishes to make a political point, but for a thriller, it is the right strategy.
The humour comes from the scenes featuring the makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman) and the producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who wisecrack their way through the process of making this fake movie-within-the-movie. As funny as these exchanges are, our laughter is tinged with a certain desperation, because we are always aware of what is at stake here. Still, it is not easy to make the tonal shift in those scenes without leaving the viewer feeling yanked around. The credit lies partly with the performers — Goodman and Arkin have a sort of low-key screen presence, so they draw us in without demanding that we give them our full attention. In some ways, they come across almost like a Greek chorus.
Now, with the mention of a Greek chorus and a title like Argo, you might be forgiven for wondering if the Sci-fi movie-within-the-movie has any relation to the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. To which my response is… nah, I suggest you see the film and find out what the appropriate response ought to be.