There’s a shot in Argo of the dilapidated Hollywood sign, the broken landmark looking down from the hills over what had once seemed to be a golden land of dreams. Ben Affleck’s engaging in a little bit of revisionism here; the sign was actually renovated in late 1978, a year before Argo takes place. But if the image isn’t exactly historically accurate, it’s thematically appropriate. Because as much as the film is about the nuts and bolts of the covert operation to spirit six American diplomats out of revolutionary Iran, it’s also about the restoration of the sense of American pride Hollywood has so ably represented over the years.
1979 was probably the lowest ebb for America since the Great Depression. Still stinging from the scandal of Watergate and the debacle of Vietnam, the country had spiraled into economic turmoil and had seen its international reputation somewhat sullied. The storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the taking of the hostages was a near-fatal blow to the national psyche, a, “How could we let this happen?” moment that filled the country with hopeless rage. It was this sense of malaise that propelled Ronald Reagan to the White House, and which made the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s victory over the Soviets in 1980 such a cathartic moment. We were looking for something, anything, to make us feel good about America again.
The irony of Argo is that one of the few bright moments for America during this time wasn’t allowed to be American. In order to protect the remaining hostages from reprisals by their captors, the CIA involvement in the operation was kept secret until 1997, with Canada garnering the praise for doing what we seemingly couldn’t. It’s this air of secrecy that lends Argo its surprising tension. This isn’t a story that’s been ingrained on the American consciousness for decades. That allows the film to feel new and surprising, even to someone who knew the outcome like I did. For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s a case of, “Will they?” For those who know they made it out, it’s, “How will they?” That’s a difficult thing to pull off, but Affleck and his cast nail it. A big part of it is the authentic late 70s feel of the production. It lends an air of historical accuracy while calling to mind actual films of the time; it even begins with the old 70s version of the Warner Brothers title screen, and has the grainy look of a film made some forty years ago. Affleck even pats himself on the back a little for his efforts, featuring actual photos from the 70s next to stills from the film as the end credits roll, as if to say, “See? I got it right.”
But running through Argo is the idea of Hollywood as dream factory. The film begins with narration explaining the backstory to what we’re about to see unfold, but illustrated by storyboards, blurring the line between fantasy and reality as we’re told history via a method of creating fiction. The whole idea for the rescue operation comes from the shared experience of watching a movie on TV. The allure of Hollywood plays a big part in the cover story being accepted by Iranian officials, and a key moment in the escape hinges on one of the diplomats enthusiastically describing their fake movie to a group of Iranian guards, who are very nearly won over solely by his descriptions of laser guns and spaceships. The myth of Hollywood is a very real and essential element of the rescue, even if Argo sometimes pokes holes in that myth. John Goodman as John Chambers (an actual Hollywood make-up artist best-known for his work on the Planet of the Apes films) and Alan Arkin as fictional producer Lester Siegel are the weary, cynical voices of experience, aware that Hollywood is more game than factory, and not always a fair one. But it’s that acknowledgement of the illusory nature of the industry that enables them to so quickly adapt their talents to the CIA’s brand of illusion. To them, it’s just another film that’s probably going to end up in turnaround. Just with higher stakes.
The final images of Argo before the credits roll aren’t of grateful families or satisfied government agents. They’re of toys on a shelf, Star Wars and Star Trek figures, the playthings of a child that came about because of adults creating them for the playground of Hollywood. And in the midst of them is a single storyboard from the fake movie Argo. Real representations of fake characters from real movies that inspired a real storyboard from a fake movie, in a fictionalized account of a true story about that fake movie. It’s a deeply meta moment, one in which Affleck underlines the ability of the movies to turn dreams into reality, and to make reality seem like a dream. Even if the fake movie that was Argo never came to be, there was power in its promise, and the very possibility of its existence was enough to help save six people from almost certain death. Hooray for Hollywood indeed.