Argo Direct Yourself: Ben Affleck and Movie-Made Politics

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This short essay is a companion piece to the collection Film and the American Presidency (Routledge, 2015), coedited by Jeff Menne and Christian Long. In the larger collection, a group of scholars consider how Hollywood and the US Presidency developedboth historically and conceptuallyin relation to each other.

When Argo (Affleck, Warner Bros., 2012) received the Oscar for Best Picture, it was hard not to be surprised by the success of Ben Affleck's "second act," of which there are none in American life. He was, after all, once a "rising Hollywood star" who then, as Johanna Schneller says, "fumbled his career notoriously."1 This "fumbling" was an outcome of forces in combination, but no doubt the main line of force was his spectacular celebrity-romance with Jennifer Lopez which gossip journalists christened "Bennifer." The bad nickname was matched to a bad movie, Gigli (Brest, Columbia, 2003), and Affleck was nothing but a "punchline" only six years after he and Matt Damon had summited Hollywood with a screenwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting (Van Sant, Miramax, 1997).2 From being made the bad object of the press"embodying Hollywood as we wish it weren't," as Ross Douthat put itAffleck seemed to learn that controlling his image required that he convert from actor to director.3 He did, of course, and Argo is the fruit of his conversion. What raises the movie to another level of interest, though, is that it at once functions as an instructional allegory on the locus of true power in Hollywood (the auteur theory, 2012) and as an object lesson in what Ronald Brownstein called the "Hollywood-Washington connection."4 If the latter point needs substantiation, let this suggestive narrative suffice for the moment: Argo, made by Hollywood Democrats Affleck and George Clooney, was released in October 2012, on the eve of Obama's reelection, and was decorated with the Oscar by First Lady Michelle Obama, via satellite from the White House. This is not to claim that Argo had material effect on Obama's win, nor that Affleck's Democratic affiliation swayed Academy voting. It's only to highlight that Affleck's movie, among other things, is a sly rehabilitation of the Democratic Party's bad object, Jimmy Carter, and in the arena of foreign policy no less. Retelling the Iranian hostage crisis from the standpoint of a cunning, tough-minded operation authorized by Carter, I contend, was a bid for Obama insofar as it was part of an ongoing bid to rebrand Democrats, in the "Age of Terror," as the party of hawkish wisdom vis-à-vis the hawkish foolhardiness of Republicans.

In what follows I'll explain Argo in two perspectives. In one, Argo is a story about the importance of film directors, and in this capacity a lament that the last time their importance was recognized within the industry was the 1970's. This is an old story, subtended by Andrew Sarris' "auteur theory" and revived in fits ever since. Steven Soderbergh has been the custodian of this story in contemporary Hollywood, and it's from Soderbergh (perhaps by way of his protégés, George Clooney and Matt Damon) that Affleck learned the values on exhibit in Argo. In another, Argo is a story about the partnership between Hollywood and the White House forged at the very level of the film medium, which, theorized properly, can be understood to produce the same odd structures as does the concept of sovereignty. In both, power rests on doubleness. "The concept of the legal order," Carl Schmitt said, "contains within it the contrast of the two distinct elements of the juristicnorm and decision."5 The normativepolitical, culturalrests on a decision; the one granted the right to decide is free of the decision, not dominated by it, because prior to it. My point, here, is that such doubling is a political problem for popular sovereignty (citizens are sovereign, but sovereigns are notalways or onlycitizens), and, in a turn of the screw, it's a problem that finds its expressive vehicle in the medium (film) that has enjoyed wild popularity under the institutional aegis of Hollywood. On this point I will explicate what the medium does to its subjects, in the process of rendering them its objects, in terms of the expressive coefficient that film theorist Jean Epstein called the "photogénie." Notoriously elusive, photogénie names a quality that, though it might be found in nature, is made more available, is even enhanced, on film. It is, in one of Epstein's swipes at defining it, "personality"; that which singularizes. "Every aspect of the world, elected to life by the cinema," Epstein claims, "is so elected only on condition that it has a personality of its own."6 What makes a personality singular, exceptionalsuch that it is one's "own"seems to be a process of decision. In Epstein's thinking, photogénie might lie in nature but it requires a certain sensibility to select it out. "Of course a landscape filmed by one of the forty or four hundred directors devoid of personality," Epstein explains, "looks exactly like this landscape filmed by any other of these." These are hacks, we understand, leaving behind images as devoid as their own personalities. "But the proper sensibility," Epstein says, "by which I mean a personal one, can direct the lens towards increasingly valuable discoveries."7 It is by no means my argument that directors, because films rest on their decision, should be understood on the same lines as sovereigns. My argument is that those stars who convert to directors (Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Ben Affleck) tend to think of themselves that way. Having found the source of the image's charismaled there, one presumes, by auteur theorythese star-directors next set their eyes on political power.

On Doubleness

The first frame of Argo, as for every Hollywood movie, is the studio logo. Though a Warner Bros. picture from 2012, Argo bears the studio logo from the 1970s: a minimalist black, red, and white in which the Warner "W" has morphed into a few abstract bars that make a "W" for the viewer who knows they should. It's a Saul Bass design, from the days of corporate modernism.

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The 1970s Saul Bass redesign of the Warner logo.

Argo uses this throwback logo for reasons obvious and hidden. For the viewer who recognizes the vintage of the logo, it's clearly meant to be another marker of the period piece. Because it's set in 1979, every detail must evoke it. But for cinephiles the logo will league the movie with 1970s Hollywood and the subtle craft for which its movies are remembered.8 Critic Dana Stevens notes as much, calling Argo a "stylistic homage" to the "Sidney Lumet classics."9 Lumet's Network (MGM, 1976) is referenced, in fact, when a Vietnam veteran says he's "mad as hell" like that movie's star. Lumet is surely a touchstone, as is Alan Pakula. Neither director had a flamboyant signature, but their movies held together by the tonal consistency that only strong directors can achieve. "My movies are unadorned, they're not particularly fancy," Affleck admits, "I think they're kind of workmanlike in some ways."10 In such modesty, he resembles Lumet, who felt the French were wrong to enshrine the bold stylists among American directors when it should have been "William Wyler, Billy Wilder."11 The French were wrong in their choice of directors, thinks Lumet, but not wrong at all to install directors at the center of Hollywood art. So orthodox was auteur theory in 1970s Hollywood that even the workmanlike director claimed its prerogatives.

Steven Soderbergh did the same thing with the WB logo in Magic Mike (Warner Bros., 2012), only months before Affleck did it. No surprise, there, since Soderbergh has made a career of porting the values of 1970s Hollywood into the contemporary industry, chief among them the power of the director. Let's presume, then, that Affleck was taking notes from Soderbergh. Consider how Argo routes the success of its dubious operation through an actor, Alan Arkin, deeply associated with the 1970s. The idea is to rescue Americans in Tehran using a bogus Hollywood production as cover. "If you're gonna do a $20 million Star Wars rip-off," a character says, "you need somebody who's a somebody to put their name on itsomebody respectable, with credits, who you can trust with classified information, who will produce a fake movie, for free." This is pure Ocean's Eleven (Soderbergh, Warner Bros., 2001). There when George Clooney's Danny Ocean plans an impossible heist, his partner-in-crime wonders who would ever sponsor the enterprise. "Benedict's got a long list of enemies," Ocean says of the casino owner they're targeting. "Yeah, but enemies with loose cash and nothing to lose?" For them, the answer is Elliott Gould, an actor J. Hoberman says could only "have been a matinee idol" in the 1970s.12 Gould belongs in a class of actors such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro whose emergence was pegged to the emergence of strong directors. Gould to Robert Altman, Pacino to Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro to Martin Scorsese. In casting Gould in Ocean's Eleven, Soderbergh puts himself in the company of these star-making directors. He jokes about this when he says of his favorite shot in Ocean's, a "tight shot" introducing Clooney's cleaned-up Danny Ocean to the Las Vegas scene, "I should actually be compensated by George for that; it's a pretty good movie-star entrance shot." While Soderbergh was building star images for Clooney and Matt Damon, however, Affleck's stardom depreciated by turns in the Michael Bay-Jerry Bruckheimer movies Armageddon (Buena Vista, 1998) and Pearl Harbor (Buena Vista, 2001).

To rehabilitate his career, Affleck learned first to direct, Gone Baby Gone (Miramax, 2007), next to direct himself, The Town (Warner Bros., 2010), and then to convince a studio its identity was safe in his care. Deploying the old WB logo for Argo was more than Affleck's way of saying he knew the studio's history; it was, implicitly, an argument about history that studios like to hear. The thesis is that the historical image has little to do with the profilmic event (no matter its world-historical claim) and everything to do with its management. The event derives force from its doubling in the image, just as a star derives power in this way. It's in the curation, the presentation. Hence a good part of Argo is dedicated to metadiscourse, with Affleck concerned not only to tell a story but to demonstrate the power-source of storytelling in this mode. He must marshal, it seems, the essence of his medium. This is how the movie gathers its narrative propulsion: after laying siege to the embassy, the Revolutionary Guard identifies those who escaped by way of the images of them kept in a "mug book" that had been shredded during the siege. These images must be pieced together by "sweatshop kids" and then matched with the identities on record, which is to say that a process of characterization must happen before a narrative of pursuit can take hold. In this it seems Affleck is working over the very rudiments of narrative cinema.

This helps sort the movie into its acts, and in effect makes it feel like a tour of cinema history. For this reason, J.D. Connor calls it "a love letter to the film industry and all its various arts and sciences."13 In the early acts, the concern is to show how an idea develops into a realized moving image. The very opening shot of the movie frames a storyboard, "This is the Persian Empire," followed by another, giving in serial form a compressed history of Iran. But the series of storyboard drawings are connected by the camera movements that, while we are viewing the storyboards, begin to emerge from them: "Push," "Tracking Shot." Here we have a case of industrial reflexivity, but these storyboards seem to evoke, too, another form of image-making with great traction in contemporary Hollywoodthe comic book or graphic novelas when in one cell of armored soldiers there is an unnecessary, "AARRGH." It's hard to think of a graphic novel about Iranian history without reference to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (Satrapi, Sony, 2007). But the elephant-in-the-room referent is the DC blockbuster productions that will fill out the Warner Bros. slate for the next half decade.14 Argo intercalates image-making of this kind, then, with images from the historical record, still photographs and footage in 8 and 16 mm formats. These are real images, and because Affleck routes his authority through the 1970s, his gold standard will be authenticity and docudrama. Hence the grainy, small-format image will be his corrective to the steroid aesthetics of comic books.

If in its early acts the movie plays 1970s docudrama off contemporary Hollywood styles, the final act is a return to silent cinema. Specifically, it combines Keystone Cops farce with D.W. Griffith's parallel montage. This act is marked by a riot of cross-cuttinga structuring principle general to the movie, as it shuttles between Langley, VA, Tehran, and Hollywood, but intensified in the rising actionand it throws into its mix not only the rates at which the fugitives board their plane and the Revolutionary Guard learn of their escape, but also the intensifying factors of President Carter himself needing to re-authorize their "backstopped" mission and the Hollywood production company needing to answer its phone and confirm its existence. In short, in this act the movie turns into a machine for building suspense; something that, once Griffith made it an industrial formula, became the main support of its "hokum." My concern here is not to show that these intensifying factors are inventions and that Affleck hasn't stayed true to the historical record. The ethics of doubling the historical record in images are not the sakes of my argument. I'm concerned instead with the politics of a doubling of the historical record in images that is all but inescapable. In part this is because Argo itself seems to includeself-consciously, in factthese politics in its premise. This, then, gives the turn in the final act to silent cinema a very specific meaning.

Consider first, however, that early in the second act, when Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and John Chambers (John Goodman) visit Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) in effort to recruit him to their bogus movie production, what seems to sway Siegel are the images of Iran's mass protests on his television set. Chambers asks him, "You ever think, Lester, how this is all for the cameras?" Clearly the two share an understanding that if political behavior is "all for the cameras," then no one is better qualified to produce it than they. The understanding is basic to the moviebut some people get it and others don't. In the scene introducing the "exfil" assignment to Tony Mendez, he and his CIA boss (Bryan Cranston) are visiting the State Department because it wants to handle the operation on its own terms, with the CIA experts there only to sign off on it. What we see in the State Department presentation is an exercise in what Bill Nichols calls the "discourse of sobriety," one that sticks to facts and is the more chastened because it presumes to have "instrumental power."15 The state official projects images of the fugitive diplomats, first their passport photos and then a cutextradiegetic, it appears, as the aspect ratio changesto what seem Super 8 home movies of them. "Mark and Cora Lijek," he narrates, "29 and 25, he's a consular officer, she's an assistant, newlyweds, they only just got there a couple months ago." It's tantamount to documentary filmmaking, with the Voice of God narrator furnishing the images with bare facts to round them out. The problem with state officials hewing to a documentary "discourse of sobriety," in Mendez's perspective, is that they are in turn unable to generate the scenarios necessary for their political objectives. He can, and it has to do with how fundamentally "Hollywood" a mindset he allows himself. He proposes that the diplomats pose as a film crew and leave Iran by its airport. "Flamboyant cover identities," notes an official, "should be avoided as it increases operational visibility." Another says, "You want to blend in with the population, you don't look like a rodeo clown."

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A state official shows passport photos of the diplomats.

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An extradiegetic shot of Super 8 home movie footage shows Cora Lijek. There is a difference in aspect ratio between the two shots.

The movie will later recycle this dialogue to affirm the Möbius strip relation between Hollywood and politics. Mendez is told he'll be decorated for his work, but confidentially. "So they're going to give me an award," he says, "and then take it back." That's the gist, his boss assures him. "If we'd wanted applause," his boss adds, "we'd have joined the circus." To which Mendez says, "I thought we did." The "rodeo clown," "the circus": this is all clearly meant to denote Hollywood illusion and celebrity at once. The CIA does traffic in illusion, of course, but it is not celebrated for its success. In the Wired article that inspired Argo, Joshuah Bearman considers how natural a partnership is between Hollywood and the CIA: "After all, they were in the same business of creating false realities."16 Stanley Fish makes roughly the same observation in a New York Times piece: "It is a confection," he says of Argo, "perhaps that's the message; everything is confection; movies, diplomacy, what's the difference?"17 The movie plays with the idea in a final exchange between its Hollywood personnel, John Chambers and Lester Siegel. "We made history today," Lester says, "History starts out as farce and ends up as tragedy." Chambers tells him the "quote's the other way around." The movie wants us to know, however, that the terms are part of a structural equivalency rather than a historical decline. "Who said it?" Lester asks. "Marx." Lester feigns surprise, "Groucho said that?"

This is not postmodern nihilism, on my reading, but a pragmatic acceptance of the conditions of power. It doesn't matter, in other words, if Ben Affleck was a dope for dating Jennifer Lopez, or for starring in Michael Bay movies; it only matters that someone has the power to frame it one way or another. What holds for the local situation (Affleck's life) holds too for the global situation (US foreign policy). Hence when Argo turns to silent cinema, when it turns in other words to Griffith's formula for suspense and makes the Komiteh hot-tempered bumblers in the Mack Sennett tradition, we can understand it as the director's assertion of control over the material. Tom Gunning has described a certain phase of silent cinema, one in which the heterogeneous materials of early cinema were narrativized into something like classical story form, as the "narrator system." The "process of narrativization," in this system, was still "particularly visible." The "marks of enunciation," Gunning says, were not yet fully "effaced," as would be the norm in classical Hollywood. In part this was because the techniques of classical style were being evolved, but in part it was a way to declare the presence of the director: a "rhetorical presence," as it were, that organized the whirl of indeterminate images into a coherent framework.18 Though Griffith had his stars, he himselfhis image-making prowesswas what he pushed to the fore of the narrative, seen in its most baroque form in Intolerance (1916). Affleck can thus be said to employ the narrator system in Argo's final act, and we can interpret his usage in one of two ways: he has either failed the rigors of classicality, wherein technique is concealed, or he has flaunted technique to make better known his mastery of the material, his "rhetorical presence." Let's just say both.

Jimmy Carter's Star Turn

When Argo is celebrated, it will never be for Ben Affleck's performance in the role of its protagonist. No one deems that an achievement. In her appreciation of the movie, Dana Stevens's one complaint is Affleck the actor: in a "dusk-to-dawn montage of Mendez alone in his motel room, smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey as he wrestles with whether or not to go through with the plan," she says it has none of the gravitas the right actor might have brought to the "dark night of the CIA-agent soul," but instead "just sort of felt like watching Ben Affleck get hammered."19 Fellow Slate critic Amanda Hess agrees, admitting that Affleck "is evolving into an impressive director" but qualifying that "his acting skills have not kept pace."20 Getting credit in a star turn, of course, was beside the point. Affleckcuriouslywasn't even nominated in the Best Director category. Yet his movie took the Oscar for Best Picture and the most compelling storyline of the ceremony was his redemption: on stage holding a trophy again, just like Good Will Hunting. The point of Argo, rather, is that political outcomes differentiate themselves from Hollywood success because, in them, credit is withheld from those it's due. Tony Mendez gets no credit. His boss disavows their part in the exfiltration: "Involved in what? We were as surprised as anybody." Canada got full credit at the time, to spare the remaining hostages any retaliation, but Affleck makes sure to tip the creditdisproportionately, by most accountsback to the US. He makes President Jimmy Carter its full beneficiary, showing how limber his executive apparatus was when Tony Mendez needed it most. Indeed, the movie's parallel montage makes it seem the executive office can make Swissair tickets appear in the time it takes to refresh a computer screen! The movie then consecrates its recuperative act by giving Carter its final lines: "After it was successful," Carter says, "it was a great temptation to reveal all the stories, so maybe I could take a little bit of credit for it, since I was president." But Carter admits, "We had to keep it secret." Whatever genius lay in Carter's foreign policy, the movie suggests, went unrecognized. But the movie now credits the resolution of the hostage crisis tout court to Carter's steady hand: "Eventually," Carter says, "we got every hostage back home, safe and sound, and we upheld the integrity of our country, and we did it peacefully."

Affleck burnished Carter's record in foreign affairs, notably, on the eve of Obama's re-election. Obama would hang his hat on his management of the "War on Terror," his behind-the-scenes authorization of the Geronimo mission to kill Bin Laden now set off against George W. Bush's peacock strut before a premature "Mission Accomplished" banner. The meaning of Argo, in this light, is its virtuosic control of the Democrat's party messaging. For it he received one of the more lavish Oscar presentations: Michelle Obama on a closed-circuit screen, flanked by U.S. service members, opening the envelope and congratulating his movie on its award. He came onstage to receive the award and the cameras cut between him and an applauding First Lady. There beside him was his co-producer and outspoken Democrat, George Clooney. It was hard not to see this as a toast to the partnership between Hollywood and the White House, on the same order as Clint Eastwood's performance art with an imaginary Obama at the Republican National Convention. Would Michelle Obama have presented the award to Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, Columbia, 2012), a movie suggesting torture's crucial part in locating Bin Laden? Clearly the symbolic act of the First Lady seeming to give her imprimatur to the Best Picture had been vetted in advance. When asked in the post-ceremony press conference if there was a "tipping point" when they knew the odds where with them, Clooney joked, "Michelle Obama." In the same session Affleck went on to note that he knows "Secretary Clinton a little bit and Secretary Kerry a little bit better," and he hedged that this may be why they were able to shoot in the State Department. The partnership, in short, is an open secret.

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First Lady Michelle Obama reads the Oscar winner.

Ben Affleck and George Clooney receive the award.

You can do two things with this secret: make a career as a media mogul, as did MCA executive Lew Wasserman, or make a career in politics, as did B-actor Ronald Reagan.21 While there is no evidence that Affleck will begin a political career, he hasas did Warren Beatty before himflirted with the possibility.22 In 2005 there were rumors that Affleck's name was being named by Virginia Democrats "as a potential challenger to Senator George Allen."23 The scuttlebutt began again, interestingly, with the release of Argo. With speculation that John Kerry would leave his Senate seat to join Obama's cabinet, the idea of Affleck as a Massachusetts Senator was floated before he eventually quashed it.24 In these episodes it has been clear that political power interests Affleck, but he seems unsure where it is best exercised, Hollywood or Washington, D.C. This is not a point I make out of biographical interest in Ben Affleck but from an observation that claiming Hollywood power seems typically to strike its possessor as a claim on power of a more general kind, such that theorizing the cinema, from this standpoint, starts to look like an essential term in political analysis.

Jeff Menne is an assistant professor of English and Director of Screen Studies at Oklahoma State University. His recent publications include Francis Ford Coppola (University of Illinois Press, 2015), and the edited collection Film and the American Presidency (co-edited with Christian Long; Routledge, 2015). 

  1. Johanna Schneller, "Ben Affleck's Second Act," The Globe and Mail, 13 October 2012. []
  2. John Horn, "Reality Mixed with Affleck Effect," McClatchy-Tribune, 11 October 2012. []
  3. Quoted in John Tamny, "Congratulations to Ben Affleck, Hollywood's Greatest Failure," Forbes, 24 February 2013. []
  4. Ronald Brownstein, The Power and the Glitter (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990). []
  5. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 10. []
  6. Jean Epstein, "On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie," French Film Theory and Criticism, 1907-1939, ed. Richard Abel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993), 317. []
  7. Ibid, 318, 317. []
  8. According to Affleck, it was "the greatest era in American movies." See Mark Harris, "Ben Affleck: No Apologies. No Regrets. No Bulls#*t," Details, October 2012. V []
  9. Dana Stevens, "Argo," Slate, 12 October 2012. []
  10. Chris Heath, "Ben Affleck: Filmmaker of the Year 2012," GQ, December 2012. []
  11. See A Decade under the Influence (Docurama, 2003). []
  12. J. Hoberman, "The Goulden Age," The Village Voice, 10 April 2007. []
  13. J.D. Connor, "Aspect Jumping," Flow 17.03, 2012. []
  14. Interesting, in this respect, is the fact that while Affleck's movie makes it seem as though Tony Mendez had to search around for unproduced screenplays, in truth John Chambers immediately had a script in mind, one he'd been working on, titled Lord of Light, that had gone into turnaround. There were already storyboards for this script, drafted by Jack Kirby, co-creator of X-Men. These storyboards were not used by Affleck in Argo, particularly not in these opening storyboards, which do not deal with the fake movie but with Iranian history. But it is interesting to note the early affinity between the project and comic books []
  15. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999), 3. []
  16. Joshuah Bearman, "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran," Wired 24 March 2007 []
  17. Stanley Fish, "The 'Argo' Caper," New York Times 29 October 2012. []
  18. Tom Gunning, D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 291, 296 []
  19. Dana Stevens, ibid. []
  20. Amanda Hess, "Ben Affleck Is No Tony Mendez," Slate, 16 October 2012. []
  21. There have been many accounts given of the cozy relationship between Lew Wasserman and Ronald Reagan, the particular stress falling on the blanket waiver that Screen Actors Guild head Reagan gave his agent Wasserman's company, MCA, allowing them to monopolize representation and production in television throughout the 1950s. For an even-handed account, see Denise Mann, Hollywood Independents (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 52-54. []
  22. See Steven J. Ross, Hollywood Left and Right (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), for an account of Warren Beatty's flirtation with political office. []
  23. "First Arnold Schwarzenegger, Now Ben Affleck?," Today 29 September 2005. []
  24. Abby Ohlheiser, "Ben Affleck Isn't Running for Senate," Slate 25 December 2012. []