With Ben Afflecks Argo,Hollywood has in some ways outdone itself. At long last,the film industry whose best-known Holocaust drama centred on a German capitalist who jolly well saved Jews had found a way to make Americans feel better about the one event in recent history that even the USA must never apologise will concede was a national cock-up: the Iranian hostage crisis. For over 400 days,55 Americans were held against their will in Tehran; the ineffectual response of President Jimmy Carter guaranteed his defeat in the 1980 election and cemented the rise of Ronald Reagan.
Recently declassified files supply Argo its based-on-a-true-story story,as well as its chance to cheer up its homeland. It turns out that,during the crisis,the fates of six American embassy workers who had been holed up in the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran were actually in the hands of a CIA exfiltration expert who had hatched an unorthodox plan to get them out of the Middle East. With a cover story and props whipped up by happy-ending specialists in the real Hollywood,Tony Mendez attempted to lead those hidden Americans to freedom by pretending they were members of a film crew scouting desert locations for a rip-off of Star Wars.
This story gives Affleck the chance to re-imagine those dark days with the usual Hollywood story device of one dedicated cop/agent/hero who strives tirelessly toward saving the day even if it means putting his personal life on hold. Here,the hero is conveniently estranged from his family,freeing him up for adventures that will remind him that he should be with that family,at least until the next adventure. Less conventionally,it give him the chance to assure us that even at the nadir of the Carter-era malaise,America was still the best at one paramount thing: manufacturing fantasy. Scenes of Iranian airport security geeking out to production stills of the Star Wars rip-off play as both funny and somewhat truthful: It might be easy for some citizens of the world to hate the great Satan, but it is much harder to hate its space operas.
Afflecks film is poised to be one of the biggest American movies of the year among an audience subset Hollywoods major studios forget exists until just before Oscar nomination season: grown-ups who remember when American movies werent exclusively about teenagers kissing,killing or learning to control their superpowers.
Suspenseful and well-crafted,it is a movie for grown-ups,one thats consciously made to remind us of what Hollywood movies used to be like. Thats clear from the vintage Warner Bros. Studio logo that kicks things off,from the appealingly scraggly beard of the star/director,from the many scenes of actual adults actually talking to each other and from the hoary patter between Alan Arkin and John Goodman as a pair of Hollywood bigshots enlisted to sell the illusion that Westerners might make a movie also named Argo in Iran in 1977. Theyre also there to cut the tension by giving the best possible delivery of the oldest possible jokes.
In form and content,Afflecks Argo is engineered to remind us of the serious,personal movies Hollywood dared during the 1970s,a time when the money men werent quite sure what might hit,and the filmmakers themselves were inspired by the new freedoms bought by the crackup of polite American society in the late 1960s. Not only could they at last film frank depictions of sex and violence,they now had the opportunity to pursue darker stories,laying bare the wounded heart of a country still shaken by the existential crises of Vietnam,Watergate and the increasing irrelevance of John Wayne.
As film buffs tell it these days,uncompromising movies like Michael Ciminos The Deer Hunter or Francis Ford Coppolas The Conversation no longer had a chance after 77,when the money men were once again given a marketable template: Star Wars,that worldwide,for-all-ages smash with the happiest of happy endings all the good guys enemies going kablooie just because the best of the good guys trusted the pure goodness inside him. (Well,most of the bad guys blew up. One made a point of zooming away for the sequels.)
Its simplistic to blame George Lucas for the end of independent-minded 70s filmmaking. But its also impossible to pretend that the cagey,entertaining Argo has much to do with the spirit of of pre-Star Wars Hollywood. Since this is a Hollywood hit in 2012,the ending is only in doubt if you believe those money men have lost leave of the instincts. I wont spoil it other than to say that Affleck crafts some potent scenes of suspense,then layers on credulity-straining down-to-the-wire close calls and then,despite not having a Death Star to blow up,still sets his audiences applauding. The hero accomplishes all he does by never losing faith in himself or his mission or the goodness inside him,and the end credits actually unspool over images of vintage Star Wars action figures.
Thats witty. Perhaps its an acknowledgment of Argos curious place as a blockbuster nostalgic for the era just before blockbusters. Star Wars allowed the fake Argo to be fake made,but all these years later the real Argo is just as shaped by Star Wars as the fake one would have been.
Alan Scherstuhl is film editor of Village Voice,New York