Fake It Until You Make It: Comic Relief in ARGO
24 February 2013
It is so rare that a movie about the movies is well-received. Typically, audiences and critics alike are unimpressed when Hollywood exposes itself for its own profit. Yet, Ben Affleck’s latest film, Argo, seems to be an exception. Argo dares to unmask the industry behind filmmaking (in 1970s America), highlighting the science behind, not only the science-fiction genre, but films in general; yet, a key to Argo’s success may be the comedic way the film embraces this unmasking.
In fairness, Argo is not simply a behind-the-scenes look at the movies. Instead, Argo is about the rescue of American hostages from Iran in the seventies. In November 1979, militants raided the United States Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Six Americans escaped the attacked and fled to the Canadian ambassador’s home to wait for rescue. Only trouble was, with tensions so high in 1979 Iran, there was no rescue plan. Affleck’s Argo, which embellishes this real-life event for entertainment’s sake, begins here and captures the story of Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA consultant, hired to help formulate and execute a rescue plan to get the Americans home. After watching a science fiction film with his son one night, Mendez realizes he can use film as cover to free the American hostages. The plan is a long shot, but Mendez gets CIA approval and enlists the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and former movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to transform this plan for completely absurd to entirely possible. The team works painstakingly to create a “fake” movie, a science fiction fantasy entitled Argo. The plan: Mendez travels to Iran, connects with the hostages, assigns them new identities, as filmmakers, and escorts them home; thus, walking the most hunted people in Iran right out of the country in plain sight. Unfortunately, when Mendez arrives in Tehran and realizes how unstable and violent the atmosphere is the CIA begins to doubt how covert Mendez’s rescue operation actually is. With Iranians narrowing in on the hostages’ hiding spot, Mendez must stand alone and act quickly before time runs out.
As director, Affleck does not shy away from the tension, unrest, and violence in 1979 Iran, but he wisely uses comic relief to offset the anxiety in this fact-based political thriller. In doing so Affleck does not fall into the trap that movies about serious topics must be serious movies. Put another way, just because the primary content of the film is serious, it is not necessary to take the movie itself too seriously; the movie is not the event; the movie is a piece of entertainment. In Argo, Affleck handles the tumultuous hostage crisis appropriately, with a somber tone, maintained tension, and well-paced build to the film’s climax, but he also infuses the film with comic relief, and never avoids how hilariously ironic it is that he is making a film which highlights how ridiculous filmmaking can be.
Most of Argo’s comic relief comes from Alan Arkin and John Goodman, the film’s underrated dynamic duo. As a retired movie producer, Arkin’s snarky, blunt one-liners stun and amuse. And, as a Hollywood make-up artist, Goodman’s heartfelt cheerfulness is warm and relatable. Goodman is also full of one-liners, such as when Mendez worries about his ability to teach the hostages enough about their new Hollywood identities, particularly his ability to teach one of the hostages how to act like a film director. Chambers reassures Mendez with, “You can teach a research monkey to be a director in a day.” It is a funny enough line on its own, but that fact that John Goodman, an actor in the film, delivers the line to Ben Affleck, the film’s director, adds the additional layer of ironic humor to Argo.
These characters, John and Lester, are pivotal in deciding which “fake” film is right for this rescue plan. The picture they decide on is Argo, a science fiction fantasy adventure. They openly mock their preposterous “fake” movie, but they work diligently to turn this absurd guise into what could be a credible, legitimate film. Ironically, Argo is not only the “fake” film’s title; it is also Affleck’s actual film title, linking the “fake” and real films. Therefore, not only are the characters poking fun at the charade of their “fake” movie, they are also fearlessly jesting about the pretense of the actual movie. And, not only are the characters working diligently to shape a “fake” movie, the actors in Argo who are acting out this diligent work are doing so tirelessly to bring their actual movie to life. When looked at as this warped comedy of errors lens, the real Argo is as absurd as the “fake” Argo, and yet both films, in their respective contexts, prove to be successes.
To use Lester Siegel’s ideology, films are charades that will be successful by putting the most effective players in place and employing an effective formula that audiences crave; all other details (including historical inaccuracies) are forgivably overlooked. Affleck’s Argo follows this exact cinematic ideology. Tackling films within films in not an easy task to pull off. And while there are many reasons Argo prevails in this task, undoubtedly one of the leading reasons for Argo’s success is its use of comic relief.