Underestimating Patriotism


Argo is a consistently suspenseful spy film, a drama about the Central Inelegance Agency, and a match game between politics and show business. But what Argo is above all else is a case study in America's awkward relationship with patriotism.

It was outlandish in 1979 for the CIA to use a fake movie production as cover for hostage extraction, and it’s no less outlandish today. Ben Affleck’s re-enactment of the long-secreted hostage rescue swipes at the unimaginative government and absurd Hollywood in turns--while this could have been a mutually legitimizing comparison (the Government joins forces with Hollywood!) Argo accomplishes the opposite.

Aligning The Dream Factory with our nation's Custodians of Peace reveals a basic reliance on a performance that expects little of its audience. It’s a disrespectful posture for a performer to take, if a strangely needful one in this case.

I realize Argo is about one of America’s brightest moments but its historical portrayal, while endeavoring to be balanced and uplifting, is complicated by a cynicism that makes it more resonant. Patriotism is fairly under-explored in our country and it's never as uncontroversial as it's portrayed.

Director/Star Afflleck plays the CIA god of extradition—his job endangers his life and his marriage but he’s so uniquely gifted at it even the people who hire him can’t understand his vision. While the government pitches “they’re teachers riding bicycles in winter,” he pokes holes in their under-achieving story. That cover, he implies, is laughable, but restaging B grade Star Wars in the middle of Iran’s revolution is glitzy enough to divert machine gun toting guards while the hostages run to the nearest Swiss-bound plane.

The patriotism of the Iranian guards, as well as that of Iran's depicted populace, is equally uncomplicated and unexplored. Ours, however, requires that we accept our nation’s power and goodness at the same moment we accept its fraudulence, or at least its eagerness to grand-stand. We should call the show a show and accept that no one comes out clean.

The greater good isn't always achieved through upstanding means and with Argo we have the benefit of seeing a clandestine government agency in operation without hearing over-explanatory BS like "we're sin-eaters" (Bourne Legacy). Throw in a little over-explanation and we lose our opportunity to tussle with the phenomenon common to most every country but ours: faith in nation. Sympathies like those often look childish, but we shouldn't let that stop us.

Even approaching the subject puts Argo in reach of Oscar consideration, which isn't as much a compliment as a cynical retort. Legitimacy is no stranger to discomfort.

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