Friday, November 2, 2012


Last night the Leeds International Film Festival kicked off with Argo, which Ben Affleck both directed and starred in.  Now, I don't really pay that much attention to Hollywood projects very often, so I'll admit that I knew almost nothing about it beforehand, even though it's apparently big news.

I was pleasantly surprised. Sort of.

Argo has at least two films in it, and at least one of them is quite good. It dithers a bit between whether it wants to be serious or comic, commits to neither and kind of crosses back and forth somewhat awkwardly.  The opening, in which the (real historical) Iranian hostage situation unfolds suggests the film was keen to take quite an interesting approach, treading quite carefully in what it did. There does seem to be a degree of sympathy towards both the American embassy staff and the rioting Iranians, neither side being explicitly vilified.  The behaviour of the embassy staff, whose first priority when the building is attacked is to shred all their documents, gently suggests that possibly they were doing work that went a little beyond their diplomatic roles.

All this nuance and subtly vanishes, however, almost immediately after the scene is set. From about 20 minutes into the film we revert into classic thriller mode: there are good guys and there are bad guys. The good guys are threatened by the bad guys. The good guys must try to escape. This, in itself isn't really a problem. Argo is billed as a thriller and absolutely delivers on its promise. The film is tense, exciting and well-paced, scenes of life-or-death suspense alternating with gently comic moments. As a thriller it ticks a lot of boxes.

Sadly, having set the scene very firmly in Iran and very explicitly as 'based-on-true-events' story, the humorous-thriller tone of the film is, to my mind, slightly at conflict with the political side of things.  There's no escaping or forgetting the fact that Iran and America are still far from good friends and that the West is decidedly prone to Islamophobia: in Argo it seems that pretty much anyone with a beard (or at least, a beard longer than Affleck's own) is an enemy. From about halfway through it has become very clear that anyone who approaches the heroes who looks even slightly a bit like a Muslim is absolutely bound to be a murderous, brutal agent of the state. Which is a bit of a shame.

Really, they ought to have pushed it one way or the other. This could have been a good, serious (though possibly rather weighty) look at relations between Iran and the US or it could have been a kick-ass entertaining thriller with no need to be grounded in the real East-West conflict that it patently doesn't really care about. Instead, it staggers between the two, reassuring audiences that America are the good guys, Iranians (real: anyone vaguely middle-eastern) are the bad guys and the US will surely triumph.

For all that, it is still quite a lot of fun.