First of all, I really liked this movie. It’s all a movie should be: frightening, funny, well-written and well-acted, skin-of-your-teeth excitement, even though you know how it all comes out. This is so, so hard. The best ever at this tough dramatic challenge was the original The Day of the Jackal, but this one can stand beside it with its head held high. We know de Gaulle will not be assassinated, we know the fugitives will escape without injury, and still we’re on the edge of our seats. I love the way it looks, the camera and processing tricks Ben Affleck used to make it look like it really was shot in 1979, grainier than we are used to these days, different color temperatures, matching the real newsreel footage of the events. I loved the attention to details, getting it real. The mob outside the embassy was terrifying. I suspect it was a lot of CGI but you couldn’t see it. During the end credits they matched the real pictures to the sets they created, and there were wonderfully accurate. They even went so far as to cast actors (all good actors, BTW) who even resembled the real people. However …
I’ve always had a lot of trouble with movies that claim to be factual in one way or another. I seem to recall that, at the beginning, it said something like “Based on true events.” That’s cool, and it absolves them from accusations that they played with the story, pumped it up. Of course they pumped it up, it’s standard procedure. We came to be entertained, not to get a history lesson.
And yet still, it bothers me. There is one egregious inaccuracy that really shouldn’t have been there. They say the fugitives were turned away by the British and the New Zealand embassies. Not true. They were sheltered by the Brits for a while, then moved to the Canadian ambassador’s house for a very good reason: Their accents would have given them away. They were obviously not Brits. All an American has to do to sound Canadian is bone up on a few words like SHED-yule instead of SKED-yule, and add “eh” at the end of a lot of sentences. And the Kiwis helped out in the deception.
Then there is the matter of narrow escapes. Yes, I understand and even agree that the action in this story had to be exaggerated to make it work. But it got to be too much. First the escape at the bazaar. They never went to the bazaar in real life. Then the maid deciding not to squeal on them, a hanging offense if she was caught. Don’t know if that happened or not. Then the airport, where they are detained while the suspicious Revolutionary Guard calls the office in Hollywood, and the phone rings and rings and rings, feeling like twenty times, before it is picked up, confirming their identities. Never happened. They boarded without incident. And the business of the plane tickets which were cancelled, only being re-authorized by Carter at the last second, after Ben’s reservations had been refused three times. Never happened. But I was still okay with it until the cops drove out onto the runway and started chasing the 747. First, a stupid thing to do. Second, the Iranians were not stupid enough to do it, and besides, they had no idea the people were on that plane. Never happened. And at this point there was just too much “never happened” for me. I didn’t like that scene at all.
But again, I liked the film. The most delightful thing was that the Hollywood stuff, the faking of a movie project, all the really funny stuff John Goodman and Alan Arkin got to say. Priceless. Golden. Arkin was a composite character, and that’s fine with me. Goodman portrayed a real man, John Chambers. He was the one who came up with the title. (The script they used in real life was a dead-in-the-water project in development hell, Lord of Light, from a Hugo-winning novel by the great Roger Zelazny!) It was renamed Argo because Chambers liked knock-knock jokes. So the running gag in the movie was “Knock-knock.” “Who’s there?” “Argo.” Argo who?” “Argo fuck yourself.”