Ben Affleck’s third film Argo should cement his status as a director to watch. Gone Baby Gone is still one of my favorite films of all time, and The Town was great. Now he’s given us Argo, a truly incredible piece of storytelling that’s a love letter to cinema, a reflection on how much of the current Middle East Crisis is a mess we made for ourselves and a gripping story. That’s all the more impressive given that we already know the ending.
Argo is “based on a true story” (click here for the truer account of the “Canadian Caper”), but Affleck’s changes are cosmetic, not essential. They enhance the drama, suspense and tension without altering the basic storyline.
Given the state of our current relationship with Iran, I was worried about how Iranians would be portrayed. But Affleck captured the terror of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime while also pointing out that American foreign policy had created the culture that welcomed his rise to power. Most of the Iranians we see are either students who took over the embassy or regime soldiers, but we do get to know Sahar, a Muslim, Iranian woman without whom the plan would’ve fallen apart.
Most important, at no point does the film blame Islam for the violence of the Ayatollah’s regime. Affleck frames the conflict in terms of political oppression and revolution.
Go see this film. The acting is amazing. The script weaves comedy and tension together effortlessly. It’s gorgeous to watch. The story is awesome and inspiring.
Bottom Line: this is one of those movies that makes you want to be a better person.
But I can’t really talk about why without moving into spoilers, which are after the jump.
At its core, Argo is about the power of story to do the impossible.
A good story can bring hope to hopelessness, bring life out of death. A good story can rewrite reality. This is the Christian confession.
The hostages are trapped in an impossibly hopeless situation. They live every day moments away from certain death. No one thinks they have a chance, including the CIA. Every strategy is longer than a long-shot. As Mendez (Ben Affleck) says, “Every idea is a bad one.”
In a hopeless situation, there’s no such thing as a good idea. Because a good idea would represent hope.
No wonder, then, Tony Mendez and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) are so captivated by Mendez’ plan to make a fake movie. Mendez and Siegel live in hopeless situations themselves, and have dedicated their lives to fabricating false realities (Mendez in the CIA and Siegel in Hollywood). In discussing the consequences of their lifestyles on their lives, Siegel observes,
The bulls*** business, it’s like coal mining. You come home to your wife and kids an you can’t wash it off. — Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin)
Suddenly, these men who live to tell lies have the chance to do something more. They can direct their talents for storytelling to crafting a story of hope, of rescue.
Argo presents competing stories of reality, and asks us which we’ll believe: the story of Hope, or the story of Despair?
History starts out as farce and ends up as tragedy. — Lester Siegel
Mendez and his team have two stories to choose from. One says that the Iranian situation is hopeless, that the fugitives are going to die and we can do nothing to save them. The other says that if a few people are brave enough to enter the jaws of death, these lives can be snatched from death and brought back to life.
Neither of these stories is true, yet. And the second story is brought to fruition, the story of hope is made to be true, by the courage of Tony Mendez and the trust of his team in the ability of his story, his bad idea, to do the impossible.
This is the best bad idea we’ve got. By far. — Jack O’Donnell
How can the Church not find inspiration here? How can we not claim this story as a reflection of our own? We are fallen persons living in a hopeless world. Trapped by the inevitability of Sin and Death, we know the impossibility of saving ourselves. Yet God mounted the worst rescue mission of all time: Instead of marching in force, with the armies of Heaven behind him, he became one of us, entered into the very Jaws of Death and died for us.
Jesus’ resurrection is a statement that Hope always wins, that the world is not beyond redemption, that our story is not a tragedy.
Now we get to join in the rescue mission, trusting in Jesus to preserve us as we stand against the gates of Hell, pulling our brothers and sisters from the jaws of death.
That’s why I’m here. I’m going to help you every step of the way. — Tony Mendez
It was years before anyone knew Tony Mendez’ story. And the world may never know ours. But fame isn’t the point. As his boss tells Tony after he learns the Canadian Caper will stay classified,
If we wanted applause, we’d have joined the circus. — Jack O’Donnell
What matters is that we agree with God that our story is one of Hope, not despair. And that our agreement looks like participation with God, not merely assent. If we have hope, then we have work to do!