Note: I see “Argo” won an academy award, and I see I neglected to post my review which first appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent. So here it is.
After a slow beginning the reputation of “Argo” as a taut psychological thriller and intelligent action flick is getting around.
“Argo” achieves the most difficult feat for a thriller, keeping you on edge even when you know the outcome walking in. As action flick it hearkens back to an earlier time before the “non-stop action” genre, when films paid attention to set up and character development. And for once, the CIA are shown as the good guys.
And if you’re paying careful attention there are some interesting questions about realpolitik and ethics versus practicalities raised therein.
“Argo” tells the story of the “Canadian caper,” a joint CIA-Canadian operation that spirited six American diplomatic personnel out of Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis in January, 1980.
Since a generation has passed since those days, the film begins with a narrator relating the background. In 1979 the Shah of Iran was forced into exile and the Ayatollah Khomeni returned from his own exile to assume spiritual leadership of the new Islamic Republic of Iran.
Enraged that the U.S. admitted the Shah into the country for medical treatment, militants stormed and seized the American embassy, taking the staff hostage for what was to become a 444 day ordeal.
Six diplomats escaped out a back door and ultimately found refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber.)
CIA officials brainstorm various plans to extract the six, discarding all of them as impractical, until agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs) comes up with an audacious plan to extract the six disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie to be called Argo.
The plan is green-lighted as the “least bad” option.
Mendez contacts makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who did contract work for the CIA with disguises.
“Let me get this straight, you want to come to Hollywood, make a fake movie, and do nothing?” Chambers asked. “You’ll fit right in.”
Chambers helps Mendez recruit producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to establish a thorough cover for the operation.
“If I’m going to make a fake movie, I’m going to make a fake hit,” Siegel said.
The cover involved a real script that justified an exotic location shoot (an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s novel, “Lord of Light” by the way,) full-page ads in Variety, press conferences, casting calls, and an office that existed to answer precisely one phone call from Iran to verify that Mendez’s cover character was “out of the country on location.”
The understated tension is marvelously done, Afleck has a great future as a director. The living conditions of the six, in comfortable but cramped conditions, living in fear, getting on each others nerves, is shown in images with few words. A glimpse of a man shot by firing squad through a window, a man hanged from a crane, the growing suspicion that the Iranian housekeeper knows who the ambassador’s guests are. This could be a textbook illustration of the novelist’s dictum, “Show – don’t tell.”
“Argo” doesn’t shy away from the moral ambiguity of the U.S.- Iranian conflict. Yes the U.S. sponsored a coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953, and supported a despot who ruled with the brutal CIA-trained secret police SAVAK.
But with the Shah gone, what replaced him? Even more brutal religious fanatics who threw a rich and modernizing country into poverty and chaos.
And who were the militant leaders? Mendez tells the six while briefing them. Not semi-literate goat-herders but American and European-educated English speakers who had seen the west close up, and hated it. Hated the west enough to throw away ancient laws on the treatment of diplomats and stage sadistic mock-execution with their captives.
There’s food for thought here, now more than ever.
There’s also some choices Afleck made he should have thought twice about. “Argo” has it the six were refused refuge at the British and New Zealand embassies. In fact both embassies aided the six in important ways, as did the Swedish embassy which briefly sheltered one of them.
Afleck calls this dramatic license to heighten the sense the six had no place else to go.
No, having the Swissair plane chased down the runway by gunmen in trucks as it’s taking off is dramatic license. This is slander.
After the preview at the Toronto Film Festival in September, critics charged “Argo” unfairly minimized Canadian participation in the operation. Well perhaps, but then again the Canadians got all the credit until 1997 when the operation was declassified and Mendez got to claim his Intelligence Star medal, and Chambers his Intelligence medal.