In 1979, the corrupt Shah of Iran had fled his country after a revolution which had installed the religious fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini as leader, and his strong assocations with the United States of America where he had sought refuge led many Americans to be rounded up by the furious revolutionaries and held as hostages. This was a great embarrassment to the Jimmy Carter presidency, never mind a source of great distress to all those involved, but there were still a number of his countrymen hiding in Iran, unable to leave. Six staff members of the now-trashed U.S. embassy, for instance...
It seems as if these days the award for Best Picture at the Oscars is a cause for a hefty dose of mistrust of how Hollywood regards itself, and though this had been the case since Crash, since Chicago, even since Driving Miss Daisy and before, the gong was by the twenty-first century a guarantee not only of more tickets being sold, but of more scrutiny on that production as if to say, oh yeah? What was so good about it, then? Argo was one of those suffering the brickbats and part of that might have been a suspicion that Hollywood was congratulating itself once again - not because of the awards themselves, they do that every year, but because of the subject matter.
Here we saw actual moviemakers become heroes thanks to an ingenious scheme to free those six potential political prisoners (or political dead bodies) which involved a top secret mission that wouldn't have been possible if it were not for the help of Hollywood. As the Americans back home became increasingly more frantic, one operative, Tony Mendez, came up with the cover story of a fake sci-fi movie production for the men and women trapped in the Canadian embassy, hiding away and in fear of their lives. The fact that Canadians were involved was another reason why this movie came in for criticism, as their help was downplayed in favour of their neighbours to the south, prompting many to see Argo as typical gung ho jingoism.
And then there was the director, Ben Affleck, casting himself as the hero Mendez; no matter which way you sliced it, this was looking mightily self-aggrandising and at a stage in history where the United States was being lambasted for its foreign policies you could have a point if you decided this was offensive propaganda. Yet, while you could take all that into account, all the own trumpet blowing and playing fast and loose with reality to make a more exciting story, Affleck nevertheless did just that, creating a spy story based in real life which was perhaps best as a Hollywood thriller, something like its film production characters wryly played by Alan Arkin and John Goodman would have thought up. This wasn't a documentary, it was a movie movie.
Those movies it paid tribute to were the thrillers of the seventies, not just in the design, makeup and costuming (which were impeccable), but in the style it adopted. All the President's Men was an admitted influence, but you could identify all sorts of homages to the kind of intelligent suspense pieces which that decade did so well, even in the broader end of the spectrum which Argo would have fitted in with quite nicely. And Affleck ensured his native country didn't emerge from this entirely smelling of roses, as we are clear from the beginning that the States had made its own bed on the international stage and now it was time to lie in it as its chickens came home to roost, to mix metaphors. Sure, there was a patriotic coda to send us home feeling a little better, but the overall impression was that trying to organise a bunch of people to do anything constructive and life-affirming was a hell of a lot more difficult than encouraging them to violence and mayhem. In other words, you were right to have misgivings, and Argo acknowledged that with skill. Music by Alexandre Desplat.