Dir. Ben Affleck. U.S. 2012.

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Loosely based on actual events, Argo is a political thriller that mixes tension with wry humor in dramatizing the daring rescue of six Americans hiding in the Canadian Embassy in Tehran, Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in which power was seized by Islamic fundamentalists led by their religious leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Directed by Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) with a screenplay by Chris Terrio, Argo’s main focus is on an event that, while a footnote to history, contains a “Mission Impossible” drama that is as fraught with life and death suspense as the main hostage crisis in which fifty-two Americans were held hostage in Iran for fourteen months in direct violation of international law granting diplomats immunity from arrest. 

It is a broadly appealing and emotionally resonant film that is strongly enhanced by a superb ensemble cast, one that will likely have strong appeal to Oscar voters. Like many mainstream historical films, however, events are manipulated, enhanced, or invented for dramatic effect. The film turns the “Canadian Caper” into the “CIA Caper,” underplaying the central part played by Canada in the rescue effort (despite an added-on credit at the end) and expanding the role of the CIA in a way that ratchets up U.S. patriotism, aided by a tacked-on family subplot. 

Argo opens with a prologue describing events that are central to understanding some of the resentment of Iran towards the West that continues today. Foremost is the British Intelligence and the CIA’s engineering of a coup against the democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, rationalized as preventing a Communist takeover but, in reality, a result of his nationalization of the oil industry that had been controlled by the British since 1913. Perhaps even more important was the U.S. long-standing support of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose regime of torture and murder was directed against millions of Iranians by the CIA-trained government's secret police, SAVAK. 

In the opening segment, hostile crowds, as captured by archival and newsreel footage, surround the U.S. embassy in Tehran, demanding that the hated Shah, now being treated for cancer in a U.S. hospital, be returned to stand trial in Iran. As U.S. embassy personnel desperately try to shred all classified documents, fearful for their lives, six members of the staff escape by a back door and are given shelter and protection by the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) knowing that, if discovered, they face certain death. 

After rejecting a number of rescue plans offered by the U.S. State Department that include having the six Americans try to escape on bicycles, CIA mogul Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) listens to “exfiltration” agent Tony Mendez’ (Ben Affleck) scheme to set up a fake movie company as part of the cover story given to Iranian officials. The plan would have the six Americans pose as a film crew attempting to find a location for the filming of a science fiction film called “Argo.” To sell the idea as plausible, Mendez has to find a producer, create a script and story boards, and secure publicity for the project in the Hollywood press. Calling on their knowledge of CIA “assets” in the film industry, O’Donnell and Mendez persuade make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to join in the plan. 

Both Siegel and Chambers lighten the mood with biting humor, much of it directed at their own industry, but the tone becomes deadly serious when Mendez and his support crew attempt to carry out the mission against great odds. Knowing that Mendez is also risking his life, the six escapees, with some reluctance, realize that this is their only option and follow the plan. Mendez provides them with Canadian passports and false identities to get them through security, but the fate that awaits them is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that the film will keep you glued to your seat. 

Undoubtedly, Argo’s main purpose is entertainment and in that it succeeds brilliantly. What is less successful, however, is the films failure to dig very deeply into its characters and their motivations or to provide any underlying message to offset its safe and conventional approach to filmmaking. I’m not suggesting that the film should have been a political tract but, being that the question of war and peace between the U.S. and Iran hangs in the balance, an approach more thoughtful than showing screaming Iranians and hero CIA operatives might have had more value. As angry militants do not represent all Iranians, the CIA’s support of noxious dictators does not reflect the goals of all Americans.



Howard Schumann

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