For a brief moment, I thought Argo was the most politically aware major Hollywood film of 2012. This was, of course, during the brief window before the release of Lincoln and, especially, Zero Dark Thirty. The reason I thought this was because of the introductory animation that illustrated the history of modern Iran leading up to the Revolution and the eventual hostage crisis. There was something refreshing about a piece of major American consumer product acknowledging the fact that the Iranians had a good reason to have a revolution (even though maybe it didn’t turn out so well on the whole) and that they are justified in their ire for the United States.
That sequence, together with a generally sympathetic portrayal of the few Iranian characters in the film (as opposed to the stock Iranian character-types that also litter the film), and the nice bone-throw to the Canadians, is what peppers this otherwise tidy espionage thriller with just enough feeling of political awareness to convince many people that the movie is—Big Cliché ahead— “the kind of thing they haven’t made since the Seventies.” It isn’t—if it were made in the 70s it probably would’ve been nastier and more harrowing—but it’s just enough to give it the awards momentum necessary to carry it on through to a few not-quite-deserved Oscar wins for film fans to halfheartedly moan about for a couple of years.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the film, its fun and engaging and tightly directed, but there’s not much in it that makes me think its really remarkable. There is however, one element of the film that is truly extraordinary, and which is also technically the reason behind my writing this article in the first place.
The name Sussan Deyhim may not be familiar to you, but chances are you’ve heard her. Check her out on imdb, or Wikipedia. The Iranian singer’s film credits include The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Kite Runner. She’s also appeared on several albums, and is a talented composer in her own right. She’s even in a computer game I bought on a whim for two dollars at a used DVD store’s going-out-of-business sale. Basically she’s everywhere. If you still can’t place her, lately she’s that beautiful middle-eastern voice riding dramatically over the soundtrack of the last movie you saw that was set in a desert.
It’s sad that this how the Hollywood machine uses a legitimately impressive talent like Deyhim, and its largely the same way she’s used in Alexandre Desplat’s score for Argo. She appears on several tracks constructed almost entirely of her overdubbed voice, which is used to create complex polyrhythmic percussion, harmonies, and melodies. These tracks are, for me, the only places where the score really sings, if you’ll pardon the pun. They are remarkable music that transcends genre. I find Desplat to be a slightly troubling composer. Surely one of the best working in films today, but also someone who, like Michael Giacchino, always seems to be striving for something greater than they are able to achieve, either because of a problem of innate talent or because of general pressures of creating a modern Hollywood soundtrack. The rest of the score for Argo largely alternates between minimalist electro-inflected textures, and slightly overreaching melodies without much in the way of strong orchestral backing. Its a decent enough sound bed, but its somewhat lacking as music. Except when Sussan Deyhim is singing.
Now, here’s my sticking point with this. This is an ostensibly progressively-minded movie, that tries to give a good context for the problems Iran is facing and seeks to avoid objectifying its villains as much as it can. It prominently features a talented Iranian artist in its soundtrack. Its also a movie that, in its pre-Oscar publicity, puts out a press-release that describes Deyhim, jokingly I hope, as an “instrument”. I also have to wonder how much of a hand Deyhim had in the composing of her vocal tracks. They sound largely improvised. Desplat chose her for the score, and guided her in the studio, but how much of this work belongs to Deyhim, who is herself a composer. Here’s a possibly-irresponsible, definitely-rhetorical question for the Academy, or the Composers Guild, or whoever: Desplat is nominated for an Oscar for Argo. Why isn’t Deyhim?