Argo within Argo within Reality.
While last year's Oscars buzz centred around films that celebrated fictional cinema, such as The Artist, Hugo or Midnight in Paris; this years fare is firmly steeped in the dramatic recreation of history. Lincoln and Django Unchained in its focus on slavery in 19th century America; Zero Dark Thirty on a post-9/11 climate and Argo, on the ploy to rescue Americans taken hostage in 1980's Iran. Where a considerable amount of scrutiny comes is in these films' adhesion to historical accuracy. The CIA and the Academy itself have slammed Zero Dark Thirty for its insistence on the outcomes of 'enhanced interrogation techniques', or 'torture', to the layman. Whether that's an indication of its legitimacy is unclear. The problematic element here is that these films constitute Americans being truthful about their past, which is in direct conflict with Hollywood's tendency towards propaganda as entertainment, rather than factual recreation. Zero Dark Thirty has avoided this in its deadpan delivery of its events, its resistance to playing up the dramatic and distancing itself from Hollywood.
Argo is especially fascinating in this respect, as its a movie within a movie, a kind of Hollywood retelling of a great Hollywood lie. Based on actual events, the film tells the story of a CIA venture, fronted by exfil expert Tony Mendez, to create a fake movie and smuggle out American hostages from Iran. The violent Iranians are almost animalised in the opening sequences, chanting, screaming, burning flags and ripping apart effigies of the US president as they invade the American embassy and gag its employees. Whether you class this film as propaganda or unbiased storytelling is entirely based on how much you carry the opening with you throughout the film. With animated storyboards fading into photographs from the period, the narration explains that Americans intentionally disrupted a time of stability in Iran, in the interests of money-grubbing and oil, essentially sinking the Iranian public into years of economic crisis and poverty. The film is set in an Iran battered and bruised by America, a perfect backdrop for the classic Hollywood ideal of Americans beating the odds.
And play up to Hollywood conventions it does. A high-stakes thriller at heart, Ben Affleck's direction consistently compounds suspense in the 'everything that could go wrong, will' motif. CIA red tape, ruthless Iranian soldiers, unwillingness from the hostages and a sweat-shop of children slowly piecing together the lie; the film is a stellar example of fast-paced tension building. Continually propelling the film forward is the score, composed by the prolific Alexandre Desplat. A meld of espionage strings, Middle-Eastern tinkering and pounding beats, it compresses the film's two-hour runtime into what feels like half of that. In conjunction is the deftly written dialogue, performed by the skilled cast with high-intensity growl. The film simply goes.
However, Affleck does play down the film's inevitable glossing over of undesirable elements with a satirical take on Hollywood and a genuine sense of humour. Even at its foundations, Argo doesn't glorify Hollywood, but depicts it as a circus run by egos, lies and money. The premise of being able to infiltrate Hollywood and set up a fake movie with only money and illegitimacy is a subtle stab at the industry's fallibility. While Hollywood does indeed save the day, it does so with lies. Alan Arkin's fast-talking, acid-tongued executive is a perfect embodiment of the tact Affleck has taken with the story and his repeated line of, "Argo fuck yourself", speaks for itself.
However faithful the film is to actual events is irrelevant. After all, it is a film made purely for entertainment. But Affleck has taken considerable pains to depict events as fairly as needed, and rightfully so.
Oh, and PS, fuck yeah Bryan Cranston.