This post contains plot spoilers for Argo.
Predictability can be an unpredictably lazy criticism. If a film feels too safe, if the plot’s on rails from which it can’t deviate, if you know the end from the beginning not because of omniscience but because you know the reality the film is based on, if it’s simply evident from the start what’s going to happen – all of these can be appropriate reasons for criticising a film. Not always, though; certainly not in the case of Argo.
The film is the third directorial outing for Ben Affleck; his first (Gone Baby Gone) was, for me, one of the most underrated films of recent years. Argo is taken from the recently declassified true story of the rescue of six fugitive American diplomatic staff from the chaos of Iran in 1980. The cover story under which the rescue was undertaken by a CIA-Canadian partnership was that of scouting Iran for locations in which to shoot an entirely fabricated movie production (the fake movie being ‘Argo’).
This isn’t a story I knew. I knew some of the broader context, but nothing of the details – for me, that’s a period of history that often falls into vague ignorance on account of being too young to take an interest at the time and it being too recent for much study. I thought I knew how the story would play out – I assumed some predictable plotting, my possibly naive reasoning being that if this hadn’t ended well the film wouldn’t have been made. In fact the reality is, on one level, even more predictable. The mechanics of the plot play out with precious few of the clichés you’d expect under fictional circumstances. If that feels like a spoiler, don’t let it put you off – with all the predictability, it’s funny, insightful and razor-wire tense.
The cast’s performances are low-key and self-effacing – Affleck especially, whose role demands a kind of broken anonymity which he pulls off brilliantly. It’s with these performances, and a script which gently sets context and propels plot, that tension gradually creeps up on you. You feel – in a good way – like the proverbial frog in a kettle – only latterly aware that for two hours you’ve been in the grip of a slowly rising tension from which you can’t escape even if you know what’s coming. That included me and my wife with our lightly educated guesses at the conclusion as well as the unknown couple next to us who evidently knew the story well if their pre-film conversation was anything to go by. The female half of that couple kept shifting in her seat as the film neared a climax, positively gasping with tension despite her proclaimed knowledge of the story. The script peppers wit throughout the film without ever breaking the dramatic moment. My favourite exchange? CIA strategists discussing if they’re going to approve the fake film (‘The Hollywood Option’) plan to gain the fugitives’ liberation:
Boss – ‘Don’t we have a better bad idea than this?’
Employee – ‘This the best bad idea we have, sir. By far’.
Economic, plot advancing, and I’m still chuckling to myself about it 2 days later.
The most moving aspect of the film snuck in under my radar in the closing minutes. Ben Affleck’s character receives the news he’s going to be lauded with the Intelligence trade’s highest honour for his efforts to rescue the diplomatic staff. There’s a catch – because the mission still, even after completion, bears such a high degree of secrecy, he’d receive the award at a ceremony with no-one else present; and he would immediately have to return the award. No-one could know. No-one could then have predicted that a future President (Clinton) would be able to declassify the story; it could easily have remained untold indefinitely. As his boss tells him, ‘If we’d wanted applause, we’d have joined the circus’.
It struck me to the core. Wouldn’t he want recognition from the country he’d served so bravely? Even if applause isn’t granted, surely he’d have longed for it? As a Christian and as a leader, there are times when I feel the need to do (or not do) something. Sometimes I do the right thing, sometimes I don’t. On the occasions I do get it more right than wrong, my heart suddenly yearns for approval, applause, recognition, validation. I can’t talk about it though – to ensure confidentiality, to facilitate growth or simply because gaining recognition would defeat the purpose of doing it in the first place. I can suddenly move into a horrible version of jealousy at those who seem to get more recognition for doing the opposite (forgetting, of course, that I have no idea what God may be calling them to). Then I’m reminded of the audience of One who sees everything – my soft seduction into sin as well as my occasional good deed. To the One, I’m invited to keep open accounts. To confess, to tell things to, to ask for help and understanding. The words of my Biblical namesake help me. David – God-seeking, God-pleasing, adulterer, murderer, leader, David:
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
(Psalm 139 verses 23-24, NIV)
David, a leader not of 60 people in a service on a Sunday morning, but millions in battle and politics; David, a broken failure who pleased God, kept clean lines with God, knows he’s been heard, been seen, is forgiven and receives divine approval. David, for whom, on good days, the applause of One was enough.
May we who follow Jesus, may we who try to help others do so too, may we all have similar good days.
I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com