The Best Bad Idea We Have...By Far
The 1979-1981 Iranian hostage crisis, the 444 day ordeal of the American Embassy workers captured and held by a well-organized angry mob (funny how those angry mobs in the Middle East have a sustainable infrastructure that can keep the ball...and the U.S...in the air for over a year), was an event that gave us our first taste of extremist Muslim terrorism and the presidency of Ronald Reagan (Way to go, Iran! Can't wait to see the inadvertent fallout from your nuclear program!).
One of the back-stories of the whole magilla was what became known as "The Canadian Caper," where six of the workers walked out of the Embassy and stayed at the Canadian ambassador's residence for a nice chunk of the crisis and managed to fly home under the noses of the cracked-down Iranian security thugacracy. What was not known was that the operation to extricate those workers—on the QT, hush-hush, and only recently declassified—was the work of the very agency that was being blamed for the Shah's presence in the first place*—the CIA.
The story of the very weird "Mission: Impossible"-styled rescue is told in Argo, the third film to be directed by Ben Affleck (after Gone Baby Gone and The Town) and it's his most assured movie to date. It's also his safest and least nuanced. Maybe the story is so bizarre, so full of dangerously easy irony and satire, that the director in Affleck felt the need to tone things down on his style (much the same way that Affleck the actor does here, as well, in his performance as CIA advisor Tony Mendez) and just "stick to the facts" and get his recreations down right (there's enough pride in this that the end-credits show a split-screen of archive footage and movie film footage to prove the point), thinking he'd be guilty of "gilding the lily" or even undermining it by...I don't know...showing any "style," other than switching film-stocks and shooting in a "found-footage" way of snatch-and-grab. And yet, were that true, the film might have had a far more different ending, rather than the one Argo actually presents. It would have been nice to throw in some of Affleck's previous shooting ingenuity, rather than create the dichotomy that Argo ultimately presents.
It is a story that captures the imagination. Six of the American embassy workers in Tehran manage to hole up at the residence of the Canadian ambassador, but time is of the essence as the Iranian guard are closing in on their location after carefully piecing together intel from the embassy. The wonks at the State department and CIA try to come up with a scenario that might get the workers over the border—bicycles—but Mendez is skeptical of putting the six out in the open for a "casual" bike trip of a couple hundred miles. Mendez's scheme (hatched after a viewing of a "Planet of the Apes" movie) hides them in plain sight—have them pose as a scouting group for a sci-fi movie that needs a desert location (like, say, Iran) and have the group (who have appeared out of nowhere) just fly out under those assumed roles and identities working on a project viable enough to be fact-checked at the time of departure.
So, Mendez recruits an industry friend, John Chambers (John Goodman), who has done extensive make-up and prosthetics work for the CIA and the Army (as well as winning an Oscar for his monkey-faces on those "Planet of the Apes" movies) to start a project that has enough publicity splash to make it all the way to Iran. A producer, Lester Siegel (a fabrication and played by the masterful Alan Arkin), is recruited to lend industry cred and get the word out to the press, allowing Mendez to fly to Tehran to train the hostages on their roles, synchronize watches, and sweat the details, which are many and widely scattered.
The idea is so crazy and "out there" that it "just could work." The beauty of it is that it did, but not quite in the way Affleck and scripter Chris Terrio would have us believe. In fact, the final "ex-filtration" is so nested with complications and roadblocks—and a seeming need to fulfill some perceived action quotient—that it becomes frustratingly conventional in a "Hollywood" sense.
This is slightly gear-grinding. By now, we should be so used to The Movies' need to dramatically enhance actual events, that it shouldn't come as a surprise that some fact-tinkering is involved. But, Affleck's film is so cynical of Tinseltown tampering,** that it's a little cake-eating to then rely on such notions for a white-knuckle finale, as the actual situation is tense enough without having to also (oh, I don't know) stage a gunfight on the sinking Titanic. And it strains credulity that at each checkpoint on the way out, everything must come down to the wire, in the very nick of time...every...single...time. I mean, didn't anything go right on this mission? Sure, the whole thing was a "Hail Mary" pass, but some of the planning had to have come off. The story had a genuine happy ending. Did it have to be The Ultimate Happy Ending?
Maybe the election year has got my fact-checker in overdrive, because up until then, Argo is a measured, understated, restrained, almost bloodless film, that manages to be smart, clever, and tense. And while there's very little of the flair displayed in his first two films, it is a fine example of Affleck's impeccable sense in casting (although—quibbling again—he might have had someone genuinely Latino to play Mendez), and having the great good sense of staying out of his actors' way.
It might not be Affleck's best work to date, but for all that could have gone wrong, the results are quite impressive. Hmm. Maybe art does imitate life.
Argo is a Matinee.
|The "Canadian Caper" embassy workers with President Carter|
Argo concept art, created by comics veteran Jack Kirby
* The movie gives some back-story but is a little cagey in what it leaves out. The CIA "coup" deplaced the democratically elected Persian prime minister Mossadegh who had the affrontery to nationalize the Iranian oil industry (pissing off the British) and flirting with communists (pissing off the Americans) and returned the Shah, who'd only fled the country fearing a communist take-over, to power.
** There are more zingers at the expense of the film industry than any movie since Altman's The Player. My favorite: "We're going to make a movie in the most desolate, dangerous, paranoid place on Earth." "Universal City?"