Warner Bros. Pictures
Iran is our enemy. I mean, that’s pretty well accepted by most people of either political persuasion. Granted, it’s a simplistic view of a complicated and diverse group of people — one of the youngest populations in the Middle East, but as a practical matter, the basic national interests of the country seem to run counter to ours, and we’re at odds. Fine.
But what I wonder is, how many people under the age of 35 have any real idea why that is? Iran, at least overtly, anyway, wasn’t responsible for the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for 9/11. And yet, the U.S.A. holds a major grudge against Iran. It’s one of those facts that people just accept without really giving it much thought. I was only 6 when in 1979, the American Embassy in Iran was overtaken after the fall of the Shah. More than 60 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. I’ll admit, I don’t really remember much about it. What this week’s political thriller, “Argo” does best is to bring home the feel of that national nightmare. Yes, there’s a crazy complicated, true-life spy plot, tense drama and crackling dialogue, but in a larger sense, the movie reminds us of why this vast gulf exists between our two countries, of the terror that people of the time felt, and the frustrating sense of impotence at not being able to do anything to help our captured compatriots.
“Argo,” which is really about only a small part of the larger hostage story, doesn’t exactly let the U.S. off the hook in describing the historical events. The Shah of Iran was, by all accounts, a cruel and corrupt man, kept in power by the grace of America’s friendship, at the expense of the common Iranian people. It should have been no surprise that he was eventually overthrown, though the strict religious regime enacted by the Ayatollah Khomeni was no kinder, just cruel in different ways, and fed by a growing popular anti-Western sentiment.
“Argo” begins at the fall of the embassy, as six diplomats are watching as everything suddenly come apart. Working in the only part of the embassy with a separate street exit, the six decide to flee before the demonstrating mob can completely overtake the building, taking everyone inside hostage. They escape out a side door, but then are at a loss as to where to go. After being turned away at several foreign embassies, the group finds shelter in the personal home of the Canadian ambassador. And there they stay for months, often hiding beneath the floorboards, never going outside, in constant fear of being arrested as spies and publicly executed.
I was particularly impressed with these six actors, mostly unknown or little seen, for their ability to maintain the tension and emotion when most of what their scenes consisted of was sitting around, and the occasional argument.
The real stars, however, are back at home. A scruffy, bearded, 70s Ben Affleck plays C.I.A. agent Tony Mendez. He’s one of the agency’s best at getting people out of tough situations, and when the six hidden diplomats’ plight begins to put a strain on the Canadian consulate, Mendez is called in to help find a way to get them out of the country.
It’s at this point that the plot turns to the element that makes this a great movie as opposed to a compelling “Frontline” documentary. In order to give our trapped Americans a cover story which will allow them to escape the country, Mendez, along with the Oscar-winning make-up artist from “The Planet of the Apes,” John Chambers, decides to create the illusion that a science-fiction fantasy film, “Argo” is being filmed in the Iranian desert. To create the illusion of reality, the pair, along with a high-powered producer played by Alan Arkin, set up the film as if it were actually in production, going so far as to produce storyboards, poster art, and even holding a casting event for the media. “Argo,” a rip-off of “Star Wars” and a dozen other popular fantasy films of the time, was a real script and had been languishing in development hell until the C.I.A. plucked it out of a pile and set it on the road to infamy.
Once the bonafides had been established, Mendez had to get on a plane to Tehran, apply for filming permits, and connect with his “location scouting crew.” But if he thought convincing the C.I.A. to take on such a harebrained scheme was hard, he’ll find the true meaning of the word when pitching it to the six wary, waylaid Americans.
I found “Argo” riveting. Watching the preview, I thought the movie would be a comedy, but it is most assuredly not. Yes, there are moments of comedy, but this is a tense thriller all the way. Affleck is excellent as Mendez, and excellent behind the camera. The drama is palpable and the tension is superb. John Goodman, as Chambers, is perfect in the role, as is Arkin. I am getting the sense that, like Clint Eastwood, Affleck is an actor’s director — he knows what actors need, gives it to them, and gets out of the way. Affleck’s last two films, “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone” were great, and “Argo” awards him a trifecta. I was very impressed, and if not every fact presented in the film is 100 percent accurate, who cares? The film has caught a modest amount of heat for over-dramatizing some of the events of the last few minutes, but the broad strokes are true, which makes it all the more amazing.
Like the best political thrillers from the era it presents, “Argo” offers great performances, great writing, a spellbinding tale, but more importantly, insights into the larger world around us. This movie may not offer us a way out of the contentious relationship that currently exists between our two countries, but it does give us an idea of what started it all.
“Argo” is rated R for pervasive language, and violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.