Saturday, October 20, 2012

Argo argues that it's all science fiction

I'm fairly certain I stole the title to this post from J.G. Ballard, who was commenting on the way that even the most fantastical writing is often outdone by the theatre of the absurd that is "real" life. I was reminded of this sentiment while watching Argo, a seriously entertaining, but not overly serious, early Oscar contender.

The story follows Ben Affleck's CIA agent Tony Mendez, a specialist in getting people out of impossible situations, as he concocts "the best bad idea" to spring six American diplomats who escaped capture but were caught in dangerous limbo during the Iranian revolution. The premise is made for the movies: The six, plus Mendez and two Hollywood types colluding from America (John Goodman as make-up artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin as producer Lester Seigel--both wonderful) pose as a Canadian film crew scouting a location for the type of sci-fi movie that usually shows up on SyFy. It's funny and exciting and compelling . . . and not exactly shy about hammering home its premise.

And it's a premise worth considering. Argo reminds us why large-scale areas of battle are called theaters and Sun Tzu entitled his military treatise The Art of War. Politics, even (or especially) radical and violent political actions, are inherently performative. The Iranian revolutionaries played to the cameras with savvy, holding regular press conferences during the hostage crisis that the film replicates, and creating posters and anti-American demonstrations that were designed to be visually meaningful. But more than that, the violence rendered the known world strange. This element is best represented after Mendez's arrival in Tehran, when he spies a body hanging from a construction crane amidst a busy cityscape.

So it is thematically tidy that the six fugitives must become actors, learning their characters and lines, in order to escape the country without being detected. And the trope works on the micro level as well. Mendez's supervisor (also-wonderful Bryan Cranston--all the supporting actors are genius) pretends to be a school principal in order to reach the White House at a crucial moment, and two upper-level Cabinet members are compared to "the old bastards from The Muppets." It's all acting, and all desperately important. Performance doesn't end at the theatre door--it is porous, inflecting every aspect of human experience.

I think Argo's one serious misstep is in the closing credits sequence, where photographs of the historical events included in the film are juxtaposed against the companion scenes, which to me felt like proof of how "right" the movie got history. Putting aside the film's documented embellishments (apparently, the escape wasn't as nail-biting as all that), it seems this choice undermines the premise of the rest of the film. We make up stories not to replicate reality, but, literally and figuratively, to understand and even save our own lives. Argo, you didn't have to prove anything else to me.

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