Sunday, October 14, 2012
The Iranian hostage crisis escape thriller “Argo” (**** OUT OF ****) gives new meaning to the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Ostensibly, this imaginative Warner Brothers release takes us back to the year 1979 when America as a superpower found itself cornered by a small but fanatical nation. Basically, Iran was exacting payback for our imperialist urges in the 1950s when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill persuaded President Dwight Eisenhower to help stage a coup and overthrow the civilian government. During the ill-fated presidency of Jimmy Carter, outraged Islamic militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November after their cancer-stricken sovereign, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had been installed as monarch by America, fled the country for sanctuary in America. This unfortunate episode with Iran is not one of America’s star-spangled moments, any more than the U.S.S. Pueblo debacle in North Korea. The radical strongman—the Ayatollah Khomeini—replaced the tyrannical Shah, and Khomeini’s minions violated the sanctity of our foreign embassy and abducted 52 hostages at gunpoint. These brave Americans suffered in captivity for 444 days before the U.S. managed to negotiate their release. Television news turned this unforgettable event into a nightmare that polarized Americans and torpedoed Carter’s bid for a second term. Now, some 33 years later, actor/director Ben Affleck and fledgling scenarist Chris Terrio have appropriated this historic subject matter for an audacious as well as inspirational espionage caper. “Argo” should rank in the top ten of anybody’s list of the best films of 2012. Despite its R-rating for profanity, “Argo” qualifies as the kind of true-life adventure that should please not only armchair historians but also make us all feel a little prouder of our red, white, and blue.
As the fury of a crowd besieging the U.S. Embassy in Tehran mounts, a small number of diplomats—six of them—debate their options and quietly slip out a back door that the radicals aren’t watching. They find sanctuary at the residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber 0f “The Town”), and try to sit out the situation. During the last few moments when Americans controlled the embassy, everybody struggled to shred top secret documents. The Embassy personnel managed to turn enough paperwork into fodder so the six workers weren't missed immediately by the invading Iranians. Nevertheless, with each day, the predicament of these diplomats grows even more dramatic. They fear that when the Iranians discover them that they will die horrible deaths. The Central Intelligence Agency shares similar sentiments, and it hatches several harebrained schemes to save the six. CIA executive Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston of TV’s “Breaking Bad”) invites one of best experts,Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck of “Good Will Hunting”), to sit in on the conference. Government officials present a number of scenarios for rescuing the hostages. For example, they plan to smuggle bicycles to them and await them at the border. Mendez takes a dim view of this option. Instead, he suggests they provide training wheels and meet them at the border with Gatorade. Nobody appreciates his sense of humor, and Mendez dreams up a scheme that seems even more insane. Mendez proposes to masquerade as a Canadian film producer, fly into Tehran, and waltz the six out under the noses of the Iranians as a team of filmmakers sent to scout locations for a science fiction movie! Eventually, despite desperate misgivings, the CIA green lights the Mendez plan, and our hero goes into high gear to make it all happen. He enlists the help of an Oscar-winning Hollywood make-up artist, John Chambers (John Goodman of “Red State”), and a shrewd movie producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin of “Inspector Clouseau”) who doesn't miss a trick. In real life, Chambers won an Oscar in 1969 for the original “Planet of the Apes.” They establish a production office and option an obscure science fiction screenplay for which Siegel has nothing but contempt. Revealing anything more about the elaborate plot would spoil many surprises as well as the nail-biting tension that Affleck orchestrates.
The worst thing you can say about “Argo” is that it unfolds with methodical attention to detail. Affleck and Terrio rely on history, intelligence, and wit to depict this suspenseful thriller. They do an excellent job of providing all the necessary history of Iran. Leaving the theater as the end credits roll will only serve to deprive you of some other choice surprises. You get to compare the actor or actress with the real person they impersonated. Affleck visited former President Carter, and Carter remembers the moment when he met Mendez. Meantime, “Argo” skewers the film industry, too. John Goodman excels a sarcastic make-up artist and Alan Arkin brings multiple dimensional to Lester Siegel. Indeed, Arkin steals every scene in which he appears. Affleck and Terrio based their spine tingling saga on the 2007 article "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran" by Joshuah Bearman that “Wired” magazine published. You can go on-line and read the informative article.Bearman's article is insightful. Incidentally, although things went pretty much as planned, the CIA had to keep the affair hushed up until 1997 when President Clinton officially declassified the operation. Nevertheless, the liberties that the filmmakers take to enhance the dramatic impact aren’t as drastic as you might imagine. Affleck and company deserve kudos for not making the Iranian adversaries look like cretinous, one-dimensional villains. “Argo” qualifies as one of the freshest, most stimulating films that you will ever see.