US, 2012, 120 minutes, Colour.
Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Taylor Schilling, Philip Baker Hall, Tate Donovan, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Clea Du Vall, Adrienne Barbeau, Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton, Rory Cochrane, Scoot Mc Nairy, Michael Parks, Richard Kind.
Directed by Ben Affleck.
The plight of the hostages trapped in the US Embasssy in Tehran from 1979 to 1981 was a strong political focus at the time – and was considered one of the reasons by Jimmy Carter was not re-elected as president. However, there was a story behind the headlines, a story that still seems far-fetched, but which was released for the public only in 1997 by President Clinton.
Argo is that story.
How it relates to current attitudes to Iran and its nuclear program as well as its staunchly religious administration of the country will be an interesting issue with this film’s release, reminding audiences of Iranian history. There is an interesting summary (with images) at the beginning of the film: critique of the British and American colonial behaviour in the first part of the 20th century, the brief attempt at democracy and the nationalizing of oil in the 1950s, the placing of the Shah as ruler and his brutal and luxurious regime, the revolt and the accession of Ayotollah Khomeini as supreme ruler.
Protestors went rampant outside the American Embassy, vividly re-created here, with the infiltration of the embassy, the flight of six staff members and their refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, with the rest of the staff (around sixty) trapped for over a year.
We are taken into the workings of the American government. There are bizarre plans to rescue the hostages (cycling to the Turkish border, agricultural experts visiting – but it was winter – and teachers visiting, but the international school had been closed).
An expert on hostage release is called in who proposes an extraordinary scenario – which worked, Tony Mendez.
The film is very well-paced, building up the details of the plan, to send in Mendez as scouting for locations in Iran for a science-fantasy (after all, it was the era of Star Wars). An Oscar-winning make-up artist for Planet of the Apes, John Chambers, agrees to participate. John Goodman gives a great and funny performance as Chambers. So does Alan Arkin as a has been director who agrees to join in the plan and move things along – with deals with agents, storyboarding and a full-dress reading of the script. It was called Argo (which leads to a frequently mouthed insult, Aah, go…).
While the planning is interesting, given the time restraints (and the toing and froing of official okaying of the venture), the scenes of the six at the Canadian house, showing them to be generally young men and women, are fascinating. But it is Tony Mendez’ daring, getting advice in Istanbul, entering Iran, visiting the minister of culture, briefing the six with new identities, Canadian passports and professional skills for Argo, which create plenty of tension for the audience even though we know the outcome.
A scene where they all go to a market, pass through a riot and cause one of the own, builds up the atmosphere for the actual departure. The scenes at the airport – will they, won’t they get away – are particularly effective.
Great credit to Ben Affleck who co-wrote the film and expertly directed it – after making the fine dramas, Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town. He also plays Tony Mendez, making his character, plan and the carrying out, always amazing.
As thrillers for 2012 go, this is one of the best.
1. A true story? Successful as a thriller, as political memory? The 70s and the 80s? The United States, Iran?
2. Audience knowledge of Iran and its history, the introduction, the history from 1950, the president, the oil nationalisation, the assassination in 1953, the shah, his regime, its cruelty, extravagance? The revolution? Ayatollah Khomeini? An interesting outline?
3. The political stances of the film? On Iranian nationalism? In its period? In later times and Iran’s nuclear ambitions and nationalism? The attitudes of the British and the Americans, their installing of the despot shah? American patriotism? Praise of Canada?
4. The role of the CIA, the State Department, President Carter? The importance of the Iran hostages – at the time, in the national memory? The revolution not foreseen by the diplomats in Teheran? The consequences? The shah and his escape, the Iranians demanding his return for trial and execution? Anti-American? sentiment, the protests, the vastness of the riots? The staff, the shredding of all the material – and its later being pieced together by the children and the women? The escape of the six? The sixty hostages within the embassy? The hostages during 1980, the 1981 release? The attempts to free the six in the Canadian embassy? Secrecy?
5. Covert operations, public knowledge and ignorance? Tony Mendez, his achievement, his later awards? Praise from President Carter? The Clinton declassification?
6. The dramatising of these historical events? The far-fetched plot – and the Hollywood references? Characters, tensions? The six in the Canadian embassy for two months, having to compress all this tension into a two-hour film? The fear and tension, the Canadians? The characters in the film – and the final credits and their resembling their actual characters considerably?
7. The credibility of the plot, its seeming far-fetched, yet its happening? The importance of President Carter’s final speech at the end of the film?
8. The use of Turkish locations, the feature shots of Teheran and its mountains? An authentic feel? Editing and pace? The musical score and the range of moods?
9. The picture of American authorities, Washington, DC, CIA offices, state? The details of the room, the personnel, the equipment? The contrast with Los Angeles, the world of Hollywood? John Chambers’ world, makeup and movies, fantasy? The Hollywood agents and deals? Plants of information in Variety, making a fake film?
10. The establishing of Iranian history and tradition? The status in 1979? The protests, the staff, the people queuing for visas, the decision to shred the material, the crowds, the breaking in, the unbolting of the gates, inside the embassy? Final decisions, those staying? The group escaping, the car, welcomed by the Canadian ambassador, in his house? The sixty remaining as hostages?
11. The introduction to Tony Mendez, a real character, his fictional name for the operation, separation from his wife, the contact with his son – and the idea of the film from watching The Planet of the Apes films?
12. Washington, the variety of scenarios and discussions, the futility of the bike-ride to the Turkish border, food inspection during the winter and the snow? The closing down of the international schools and teachers not admitted? The authorities and their serious approach? When confronted with the fake film scenario?
13. The fake film? Jack O’ Donnell and his working with Tony Mendez? His giving the all-clear? The time needed to set up the film? Tony and his visit to John Chambers – and John Goodman’s style and the funny remarks about Hollywood and fakery? The meeting with Lester? His cynicism? His career? His wit? The scripts and their searching for a suitable film? The discovery of Argo – in the wake of Star Wars? The ironic swearing with the title of the film? Going to the agent, the dealing, the bluff about Warren Beatty? The leaks to Variety? Setting up the reading, the cast in costume, the performance? An authentic feel?
14. Trying to persuade the authorities, the visit to the White House, Secretary of State? The go-ahead?
15. The Canadian embassy, the ambassador and his wife, their courage, Britain and New Zealand refusing to shelter the hostages? Keeping them for two months, the prospects? The maid, suspicions? Her later behaviour, helping conceal the Americans, the scene of her entering into Iraq and safety?
16. The personalities of the six, the variety of jobs, seeing them in action, marriages? Ordinary?
17. Tony and his travelling to Turkey, the British informant and the help with procedures? Passports? The script? The drawings? A suitable cover? The recommendation to go to the ministry for culture?
18. Tony and his arriving in Teheran, the questions, going to the minister, discussing the project, meeting with the group, their reactions, the ability to trust or not, suspicions, fears? Giving them their identities, the script, the information? Their learning them, his testing them? Their new identities? Requested to go into the city, in the minibus, moving through the protest with its hostility, in the market, the taking of photos, the guide and his work, the shopkeeper and his protests, the near-riot and its effect?
19. CIA and state? Stopping the project? The plans for the release of the sixty hostages? Tony and the night before, pondering, Jack O’ Donnell’s message? His decision, phoning O’ Donnell? O’ Donnell going to the authorities? The passports, the tickets, the appeal to President Carter to authorise the tickets?
20. Going to the airport, Tony and his explanation of the steps, the problem of the tickets and the lack of reservations, split-second timing? Examination of the passports, the white slips missing, their convincing the authorities that all was well? The guard, looking at the script, looking at the drawing boards? The official and his being able to speak Farsi? Phoning the company in Los Angeles? The delay, the final decision to let them go?
21. The children and the women piecing together the shredding? Making the connection and the missing Americans from the embassy? The photos in the market – and the identifying of the face? The emergency, the split-second timing, the chase, smashing the doors at the airport, the cars going on the tarmac?
22. Getting into the plane, the pilot, seconds to take-off, the final take-off, the allowance of alcohol? The phone calls? The relief?
23. The welcome home, the authorities, Jack O’ Donnell meeting Tony, their remarks and praise? The secrecy, the award made in secret? His going home, relationship with his wife? Seen with his son?
24. President Carter, the comments on the achievement? The meeting of fiction and real-life?