Based on true events, “Argo” takes a well-known event with a well-known ending and creates a film that is both captivating and suspenseful. It is a film that is about something, one that shows how complicated foreign relations with hostile nations can be and the impossible choices that we can be faced with when everything goes to hell.
I’ve always wondered about the purpose of maintaining embassies in countries which always seem to be on the verge of violence and chaos. They exist as ports in a storm, a place for travelling Americans and potential immigrants to seek shelter, as well as a source of information and somewhere that watchful eyes can monitor potentially dangerous developments that might threaten American interests. But if they are important bastions of American ideals floating in a sea of intolerance, doesn’t it make sense that they are protected? The recent attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and Egypt, as did the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, show that we still haven’t learned how to keep our people safe. “Argo” shows the lengths we will go to in correcting our mistakes.
“Argo” begins with a brief, somewhat skewed history lesson on Iran. It was once ruled by shahs, kings who were aristocratic and wealthy, ruling over its subjects as kings do. The shahs were later overthrown by the people, who installed a democratically elected leader (actually appointed by the Iranian Parliament) who returned the oil production and wealth created from it to the people. The country was on its way to modernization, when the U.S. became involved in a coup d’etat and installed another shah, one friendly to American interests (actually Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi had been ruling since 1941).
This shah was irresponsible, living in splendor while the people labored in poverty. The tipping point came when American popular culture, with its secular and often sexual messaging, began to trickle down through the population. This inflamed the conservative Shiite population, who successfully overthrew Pahlavi. Pahlavi escaped and sought asylum in the U.S., paving the way for the ayatollah and the Iran we know today.
The new theocratic government demanded we return Pahlavi for trial and execution. We declined their offer. Tensions flared. The American embassy in Iran was overrun, and six Americans escaped and found shelter in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence in Tehran.
The crux of the story happens in meetings where increasingly poor ideas for getting these Americans out are passed around the table. The hostages in the American embassy were too heavily guarded. The six within the Canadian ambassador were in hiding, kept secret for months. In an inspired moment, American diplomats concoct a scheme to use Hollywood to create cover stories for the Americans as a Canadian film crew shooting a sci-fi film the desert. Everyone seems willing to believe that Hollywood is more than willing to risk their lives to make a buck. The CIA gives the green light, and pre-production of “Argo,” the fake sci-fi adventure, begins in earnest. Actors are hired, press events are held and CIA operative Tony Mendez is sent to Iran to teach the six Americans how to behave like Hollywood elite.
Ben Afleck stars in and directs “Argo,” which is his best film to date. There is a strong attention to detail in the film, with shots and situations taken directly from the events, creating a very real and frightening situation. The performances are nuanced and authentic. The actors do a powerful job of showing the panic that exists just beneath the surface, the feeling of abandonment, and the strength these people had in a harrowing, deadly time. If the film is a success, and it absolutely is, it comes from its ability to create suspense in a setting where most of the audience knows the outcome. It’s common knowledge the hostages got out—it was all over the news at the time. Knowing this didn’t keep me from holding my breath at times.
Ultimately, the Canadians took credit for the extraction. They played a much larger role in the actual events than the film. But due to the volatile nature of the crisis, any American involvement would have resulted in the deaths of the hostages who remained in Iran. The operation wasn’t declassified until the Clinton Administration. It makes you wonder what else is happening, beneath the veil. The clandestine agencies of the U.S. are some of our most unsung heroes. Their accomplishments are unrecognized and their identities hidden. We need people like Tony Mendez to clean up the messes made by supporting the wrong bad guys. I wish we would just get out of the business of supporting bad guys—we just don’t seem very good at it.