I’ve been putting off summing up my experience of the year 2012 in cinema for a while now. It just seems that I never see enough to really pass judgment on a year until 1/6th of the next one has passed. Part of that is just the general lethargy of me not seeing half of what I want to on time. But there’s also a big part of me that doesn’t want to write an article like this until I can bitch about the opinions of others, namely the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. So I will get to my overall thoughts on the cinema of 2012 in a second article, first I have to get rid of my venom in this one.
In specific I want to tell you, dear readers, that the Academy gave its highest honor, the Oscar for Best Picture of the year to a film that is wholly undeserving of such praise. Now this is not an unusual occurrence. In the past ten years I have agreed with the Academy’s choice all of once, when the Coen Brothers won top honors for their 2007 Western/Noir/Existential Philosophy Think-piece No Country for Old Men. That’s not to say that I hate every Best Picture winner. I have absolutely no complaint with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Departed, The Hurt Locker, or even The Artist winning it all. There were movies I preferred to all those films, but they are all good to great films that deserve to be seen and stood out against the films they competed against at the Oscars. That’s not something that I can say for Argo, the film that was named Best Picture of 2012. I know my esteemed editors here on The Addison Recorder have sung the praises of Ben Affleck’s Iran Hostage thriller in their own 2012 pieces, but my opinion runs rather dramatically counter to theirs.
When I finally got around to watching Argo a few weeks ago I encountered a disappointingly predictable and unfulfilling thriller. The film starts out strongly, with an informative prelude filling audiences in on the history of CIA intrusion in Iranian politics that leads inexorably to the revolution of 1979 that toppled the U.S.-supported Shah from power. The audience truly enters the film with a dramatic recreation of the fall of the American embassy in Tehran to a crowd of students and revolutionaries backed by the new Islamist regime. A few Americans escape and thus begins film’s primary plotline about the CIA mission to extract those would-be hostages from their sanctuary in the Canadian embassy. The rest of the film goes as we might expect if we have ever seen a mainstream American movie: the mission has its successes and setbacks, there are comic interludes (mostly set in Hollywood, where a fake film provides a cover for the extraction mission), and the Americans emerge from their captivity after triumphantly outfoxing the Iranian authorities despite several close shaves and grievous misgivings. It’s a pretty nifty little story that makes for a decent flick and an interesting footnote to history.
My problem is just that: Argo is nothing more than a decent flick about a historical footnote, but treats itself and its subject matter like they are both deeply serious and relevant to our current political and social climate and has in turn been treated like it’s a brave and bold piece of filmmaking. In essence Argo has been praised to the heavens for being a now-typical Ben Affleck thriller that happened to have an opening sequence about the Iran Hostage Crisis. That’s just bullshit. Despite the rich source material at hand and his awards-ready pedigree star/director/producer Ben Affleck deals with the historical events that his films is set in with about as much depth and insight as your standard episode of Doctor Who. The Iran Hostage Crisis, which is one of the most dramatic and important events in the last half-century of American history is just window dressing here. It merely serves as the backdrop for a very rote American spy thriller, with any qualms or even considerations about the justice of American actions or the meaning of Iranian rage jettisoned after the opening sequences are finished.
Instead Affleck turns his film into one where CIA agents are unquestioned heroes, Hollywood saves lives by bullshitting, and the people of Iran are turned into a mass of threatening aliens out for innocent American blood. It’s a neat trick, really, dressing a film up as topical and even controversial before easing off and letting audiences have the predictable thrills (a protest march blocks their SUV and lots of angry brown people pound on windows!) and happy endings (the Revolutionary Guardsmen are outfoxed by science fiction storyboards and cannot catch up with the plane carrying the Americans to safety!) that they want without too much ill feeling or messy thinking. There is no unpleasant ambiguity in Argo. No lingering on the dubious legalities of this mission and no questions asked about the need for the CIA to have a success like this so as to erase their systemic failures in the turbulent time leading up to the Revolution. The audience is certainly allowed no extraneous time with the actual American hostages within the embassy, who would spend hundreds more days in terrifying captivity after their colleagues were whisked away on a Swiss airliner. Instead we get a literal champagne party in the sky when the Argo mission is a success and the final note of the film is Ben Affleck’s character being told that President Carter called him an American hero (which somehow means his estranged wife will take him back now).
It goes without saying that there is no effort to adhere to the historical truth of the actual Argo mission, either. Instead Affleck and his collaborators take eye-rolling dramatic licenses left and right. They play down the endless and courageous efforts of the Canadian embassy and government to safeguard their American refugees, set up the operation, and oversee its actual execution. Jimmy Carter recently said in an interview that the mission was 90% Canadian and 10% CIA; watching the film would lend just the opposite impression. Even worse, the entire climax of the film is an utter fabrication designed to increase tension and catharsis within the audience. There was no order from the White House to abort the mission at the last minute, no detainment of the Americans at the Tehran airport, and no Revolutionary Guardsmen chasing the escaping airplane down the runway with their AK-47s brandished. It’s all a ridiculous, fraudulent exaggeration meant to needlessly goose the audience and add to the CIA’s sterling reputation for flawlessly executed derring-do .
I won’t even bother diving into the self-fellating ridiculousness of the film’s toothless parody of Hollywood mores, suffice to say it’s about as clever as saying “Argo fuck yourself” a half-dozen times. Let me say it again: bullshit.
But my word carries no weight, and the film’s trickery was obviously effective since every industry awards group I can think of was hoodwinked into naming Argo the supreme achievement of the cinematic arts in 2012. Such sentiments often fade, though, and when I am writing and teaching about film in five, ten, or twenty years it’s my certain feeling that Argo will be as much of a footnote to the year 2012 in cinema as the real-life Argo mission was in American and Iranian history.
To know why Argo will be forgotten, though, you will have to check back in for part two of my article. I’ll highlight the half-dozen films from 2012 that I think have earned a permanent spot in the cinematic firmament, with a special focus on the American films that treat history with the depth of insight, understanding, and criticism that it deserves.