“So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.”
Argo is a story about an important moment in American History: The Iran Hostage Crisis. This focuses on the part that would be known as The Canadian Caper. What we get is more than just a reenactment of history.
The film starts in November of 1979. Iran has gone through its Islamic Revolution. The Shah had been dethroned. Ayatollah Khomeini was the figure of a revolution of Islam in the country and the people wanted justice. They wanted the Shah tried and hanged and were outraged he was housed in the United States, which was already denounced by Khomeini as ‘The Great Satan’. On November 4th, Iranians stormed the American embassy, captured at least 50 Americans and held them hostage. Some managed to escape and six were given refuge in the Canadian embassy under Ken Taylor.
More than ten weeks would pass and the Americans held hostage were still held captive facing an unknown fate with a kangaroo court of Iranian students. Those six in the Canadian embassy were still being sheltered with a future just as uncertain. Now it was a matter of finding them ways of getting them all out safe and sound. Some Americans thought military intervention and even a war was the thing to do but it would cause more bloodshed to the American and even could lead to the embassy being bombed. This was an embarrassment weighing heavily on the entire United States at the time. President Jimmy Carter made it clear he will not back down to terrorist demands. That left the CIA to decide what actions to pursue especially as time was running out and the fates of all were uncertain.
Enter CIA Tony Mendez. He hears about the six from people at the CIA table trying to devise rescue plans for the six. None come up as good ideas. It’s when he’s talking to his son from his failing marriage that his son’s talk of science fiction entertainment sparks an idea about a fake film production as the rescue mission. First: find the right Hollywood people for the idea. He finds it in makeup artist John Chambers and film producer Lester Siegel. Second: find the right movie title and subject line. Siegel finds it in a rejected script titled Argo. Third: give all those in refuge Canadian identities and a trial run through the local bazaar. Tony himself poses as the director. Fourth: know the ins and outs of how to make it out of Iran. One thing we’re reminded is there are guards at the airport who could arrest any American or even a citizen with an American name in their documents for possible connection to the Shah. It all sounds good but it’s not going to be easy. CIA may feel this mission is not as important as the main issues to deal with. Cooperation from the Canadian government would have to occur. President Carter giving the okay on the Swissair plane tickets to get them out would have to happen. The Hollywood people would have to be there whenever a guard questions Kevin, Tony’s guise. And this all has to be done before the Iranian people find out the secret of the hidden Americans and they eventually will. Will this mission succeed? History has already told us so. Nevertheless it’s all how it plays out in the film.
The best quality of the movie is not just its redirectioning of the events of the time but capturing the pressure of the moment. I was a child when the hostage crisis occurred and I knew that the six would all make it out alive. I knew the Shah would eventually be moved to Egypt where he’d spend his last months. I knew that all the other American hostages would be freed almost a full year after the six escaped. Nevertheless watching the movie made me forget all the facts I knew and made me wonder what will happen next? Will they succeed in their mission? Will something go wrong? It captures the sense of everything that was happening at the moment. It also captures the reasons why such an operation was necessary instead of an act of war. It captured the reasons why a war would only escalate the situation. This was not a simple political situation. This was a moment in history almost reminiscent to the French Revolution of 1789 where it was a revolution of the people consisting of a kangaroo court of trial, verdict and sentencing of even death. Anything more than the Canadian Caper would be disastrous and bloody. Anything less would be disastrous and humiliating.
Meanwhile it’s not just about a rescue mission. It’s also about people and what they mean to others. There’s Tony, a CIA agent who has the responsibility of these Americans in their hand. He’s also a father who values his time with his son even though it’s not often. There are the hostages who are fearing for their lives and nervous if this mission will fail. Especially the Lijeks, a married couple. There are all those involved in the mission–Tony, the six Americans, the film producers and the CIA–that feel the weight of this mission and know it’s can’t fail. Not with the eyes and hopes of all the USA watching. This was as much a human story as it was a thriller.
Often when a piece of history is reenacted on the big screen, it’s often a question if this moment is relevant today. I feel it is. Khomeini may have died in 1989 but anti-American sentiment is still present in many of the predominantly Muslim countries. The Iranian people have calmed down a lot since the Islamic Revolution of the late 70’s and have become somewhat more American-friendly, if imperfect. Nevertheless Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current President of Iran, is a man who idolizes Khomeini and his beliefs. We should keep in mind Ahmadinejad was 22 when the shah was overthrown and the Islamic Revolution began. Ahmadinejad has spoken narcissistically and even eccentrically about the ‘end of the American empire’ and has spoken openly about his nuclear ambitions. Most Iranians do not accept Ahmadinejad’s views but they’re either too afraid to speak or they’ve been punished criminally. This comes at a tense time as the US is trying to improve relations with the Muslim world. So I can see what happened in Argo quite possible to happen again now.
Ben Affleck did an excellent job in directing the movie. He took a smart script from Chris Terrio and directed an excellent movie out of it that was as much thought provoking as it was thrilling. He did a very good job of acting too. I liked how right during the very first scene I saw Ben play a role instead of coming across in typical Ben Affleck style. Mind you Ben was not the complete standout. Alan Arkin gave a great turn as Lester Siegel that stole the show many times. John Goodman was also a show stealer as John Chambers. Victor Garber also held his own as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.The script from Chris Terrio was also smart, funny at times, touching and thrilling. It also did a very good job of capturing the chaos of the times from the riots in the town to people being hanged from cranes. The inclusion of news footage added to the drama both before and after. Even hearing Jimmy carter speak during the credits added to the story and its significance in history. Other standout efforts are Rodrigo Prieto in cinematography and Alexandre Desplat in film scoring.
Argo is a movie about a piece of history that we often forget but is very relevant towards the poitical situation in the world now. Seeing it played out on screen does more than just retell history.