Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Tate Donovan
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 12 Oct 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 12 Oct 2012 (General release); 2012)
Certain events in history trigger precise, unforgettable memories. Everyone argues—or at least, they used to—that they remembered the exact moment, and what they were doing, when it was announced that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated on that fateful day in Dallas, Texas. For most of us, said immediate recollections come with thoughts of 9/11, or move back a couple of decades, and the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Yet one of the most enigmatic moments in US foreign politics—the taking of hostages by rioting student/communal rebels in late ‘70s Iran—seems almost forgotten. Sure, we still have Nightline to kick around thanks to this 444 day long public policy trial, but there have been few attempts to tell this story, to focus on what we did behind the scenes to make sure that all of the kidnapped Americans were brought home, safely.
Which leads to the saga of how a Hollywood F/X wizard (who won an Oscar for his work on Planet of the Apes) and a CIA agent created a fake film studio, brought on a reluctant ‘producer,’ found a fabulously awful script and crafted a con that tricked the hair trigger Iranians into allowing six of those precise hostages to walk free. Part Producers, part All The President’s Men, Ben Affleck’s excellent Argo distills the intricacies of the event, turning it into a comedic thriller where suspense matches specifics to render both believable and bravura. Sure, some of the names and elements have been altered for the sake of dramatics, but the overall effect is a celebration of smarts and savvy. Only an agency as covert as the CIA could come up with something as surreal as a phony movie crew getaway. Only someone as Affleck could invest it with power, period precision life.
We are introduced to the issues in Iran circa 1979 right up front. The Shah of said nation, a coy combination of jet-setting international icon and cruel despot, has been granted asylum in the US while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. This turns America, already the “Great Satan” in the minds of Muslim extremists, into a sworn enemy. Rioting in the street targets our Embassy, with much of the staff hoping that the Iranian police, or some other security team, will protect them. One day, the riots break through the gates, and in the end, 52 people are taken hostage. Six, however, escape through a backdoor and wind up seeking asylum at the home of the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber). After 70 days in captivity, the Great White North is afraid they will be taken too.
Thus we get the previously mentioned plan, spearheaded by maverick agent Tony Mendez (Affleck). Hooking up with occasional CIA consultant John Chambers (John Goodman), they devise a way of creating a fake production company. With the help of a semi-retired producer (Alan Arkin), they discover a horrible script entitled Argo. Using it as their premise, they devise aliases for the six trapped workers, making them into script supervisors, production managers, and other important players. Initially, the government wants nothing to do with such a strange plot. But when it looks like the group with be uncovered, Mendez’s plan is approved. Now, he has a mere 48 hours to get in, get approval from the local Ministry of Culture, and secret his charges out of the country. With thousands of armed guards at the airport, it won’t be easy.
Turning the ‘70s into a telling time of ancient technology and bad facial hair, Argo is a godsend. It’s a fully realized commercial film that tells an engaging, based on true life tale in a terrific, spellbinding fashion. This isn’t some political statement or a way to forward a specific sociological agenda. Instead, Affleck just wants us to experience the situation from the ground up, to see how ideas like this are tossed about (along with options involving 300 mile bicycle rides and phony farm inspectors) and then brought to fruition. Goodman and Arkin are a perfect pair of foils, each bringing a devil may care attitude to what is basically, in the minds of many, a suicide mission. Yet they don’t simply sit back and relish their relationship to what’s going on. Instead, both Chambers and Arkin’s Lester Siegel show that, when the chips are down, they are more than capable of coming up with a solid solution.
Along the way, we see the toll this takes on the hostages. Each comes across as spoiled by their position as an American attaché. But as time goes by and the ability for the US to respond dries up, we see the more personal side of the situation. Husbands turn on wives, trusted servants become possible spies. All the while, we watch as the rebels go to more and more extreme measures to make their point. This is perhaps best highlighted by the true story of children working in sweatshop conditions to re-piece together shredded documents which may shed light on the US policy in Iran, and the missing six. The idea that someone would be so obsessed with discovering the “truth” that they would resort to something so severe is just one of Argo‘s many eye opening elements.
So is the story with Chambers. In fact, an entire film could be made out of the F/X artists ties to the CIA. It would be amazing to learn what missions he worked on, what expertise he brought to America’s Cold War battles. Here, he’s just a link to the rest of Tinseltown’s tainted designs, a friend in low places, so to speak. Equally enthralling would be the 444 day ordeal experienced by the other hostages. We get hints at how horrible it truly was (a sequence involving a firing squad), but this is not their story, either. Instead, Affleck takes a fringe aspect of one of the ‘70s’ most important foreign policy problems and turns it into an edge of your seat experience. It’s the sign of a good movie that, even with the facts well known and placed in historic perspective, we still wonder how things will turn out. Clearly, with Argo, Affleck has made a very, very, very good film.