“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.
The news shocked all of Canada. On September 4, 2012, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois won the Quebec provincial election. She was to give her victory speech at the Metropolis in downtown Montreal when a masked gunman opened fire, killing a stage technician and injuring another. Marois was unharmed. It has not been determined whether this was meant to be an assassination attempt on Marois or not. Even if it was, politically-motivated assassination attempts in Canada are extremely rare. Nevertheless the shooting did remind us that such a catastrophe is very possible here in Canada.
Throughout the beginning of time, being a political leader has always been a position to put one’s life in jeopardy. The King of a country would be seen as the prime target for warring armies in the quest to conquer. A leader could even be assassinated by a person within their circle as Julius Caesar was. Even in modern day dictatorships or dictatorships of the recent past, a head of state would be prey for assassination attempts like Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Salvador Allende or Anwar Sadat. The assassin would either be an person of opposition or a militarized coup.
Even in democracies assassination attempts are still common as was the failed attempt on UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 and the successful attempts on India’s Indira and Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 and 1991 respectively. Even countries with a reputation of being peaceful like Sweden are not immune to assassination attempts as was the case when Prime Minister Olaf Palme was shot and killed in 1986. The most famous assassination attempts in a democracy have come from the United States. Four presidents including legendary presidents like Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy have been assassinated while in office. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot while in office but survived. The most recent assassination attempt on an American politician was on January 8, 2011 on Arizona US Representative Gabrielle Giffords. She survived but six others, including US District Court Judge John Roll, were killed.
Here in Canada, we’re lucky not to have a prime minister assassinated while in office. Even infamous prime ministers like Brian Mulroney lived to see his last day in office and even Stephen Harper is still alive and active during a time of Harperphobia that’s heavily promoted through the gab of liberal Canadians. The closest call was on Jean Chretien back in November 5, 1995 when a man armed with a knife broke into his home residence to stab him. Neither Jean nor his wife were hurt.
There have only been two successful assassinations in Canadian politics. The first is Thomas D’Arcy McGee. He was both an Irish nationalist and a father of Canadian Federation. He would attack the Orange Order in his writings in the 1850’s and defended the Irish Catholic right to representation in the assembly. He was elected to the Legislative assembly of the Province Of Canada in 1858 and played a significant role in the creation of the Dominion Of Canada. Less than a year after the independence of Canada, McGee was shot to death by Patrick Whelan, an Irish Catholic and a sympathizer of the Fenians: a group of Irish Americans who wanted to take over Canada to prevent British occupancy. Whelan was hanged. McGee remains the only Canadian politician at the federal level to be assassinated.
The second successful assassination was at a provincial level and an act of terrorism. Pierre Laporte was Vice-Premier and Minister of Labour of Quebec in 1970 as Robert Bourassa was the Premier. On October 10, 1970, Laporte was kidnapped outside his home by a cell of the FLQ: A Quebec independence terrorist group. The FLQ was already regarded as a dangerous group for it had already committed seven murders, multiple mail bombings in the 60’s and bombed the Montreal Stock Exchange one year earlier. A British diplomat had been kidnapped days earlier and was still hostage. Laporte’s abduction was part of a ‘political protest’ to have ‘political prisoners’ freed. The Government of Canada under Pierre Trudeau responded with the enactment of Canada’s War Measures Act and Trudeau’s promise to punish whoever harms the two men. On October 17th, seven days after the abduction, Laporte’s body was found. The incident is remembered in Canadian history as the October Crisis. The British Diplomat was released in December and the FLQ eventually declined due to heavy police crackdown and declining public support after the assassination. Nowadays the biggest lobby for Quebec independence is through peaceful political lobbying like the Parti Quebecois.
Despite current politics in Canada being mostly peaceful, there is a chance for violence either by a cowardly person or a person with opposing viewpoints. We shouldn’t forget that Canadians have often reacted angrily to political situations in the past. We’ve had rebellions in both Lower Canada and Upper Canada before the Dominion was created. We’ve had rebellions in Manitoba in the 19th Century like the Riel Rebellion. We’ve had labor riots in various cities with the Winnipeg Riot of 1919 being the most famous.
Political violence became less admired and more looked down upon since World War II but it’s not to say it’s completely gone away. Back in the 60’s there were attacks on air force bases to protest the war. In the 80’s and 90’s, there were protests and blockades from First nations groups. Even in my city of Vancouver, there have been political riots like the G7 riot back in 1997 and various anti-Olympic protests before Vancouver 2010. There was also the G8 riot in Toronto from anarchist groups. So there’s no doubt that there’s political anger here in Canada that can turn violent.
I won’t say that the Montreal shooting was politically motivated as that has yet to be proved but I will state the facts I’ve read and know as of now. On the night of September 4th, 2012, the Parti Quebecois won the provincial election with a minority government. Party leader Pauline Marois delivered her victory speech when partway through, a masked gunman opened fire with what many thought was an AK-47. One stage technician was killed and another was injured. Marois was taken away by her bodyguards and was unharmed in the shooting. The gunman then attempted to set fire to the building with a Molotov cocktail. The shooter was quickly tackled and arrested by the police.
The victim was 48 year-old stagehand Denis Blanchette. Witnesses including Marois herself believe his actions taken that night could have prevented more fatalities. His funeral was held in a Roman Catholic church and was attended by hundreds including Marois and other political dignitaries. Police were present throughout the church. Dave Courage, the 27 year-old man who was also shot, was originally in critical condition and continues to recover in hospital. The suspect is 62 year-old Richard Henry Bain of La Conception, QC, a small town 90 miles northwest of Montreal. He faces 16 charges including first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder as well as possession of explosive material and prohibited weapons. While being placed in a police cruiser, he yelled in French “Anglos are waking up.” then in English: “It’s f***ing payback time.” Crown Prosecutor said Bain has 27 guns, all but one had been registered.
Bain is expected to reappear in court on October 11th. Despite the statement, it’s unknown whether Bain’s actions were politically motivated or the actions of a crazed man. Court trials and public reaction will define the events yet to come and could even affect the political climate in Quebec. One thing about the shooting is that it reminded Canada that political assassinations in Canada are quite possible. An extremely rare chance of happening but still likely.
WIKIPEDIA: FLQ. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FLQ>
WIKIPEDIA: October Crisis. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/October_crisis>
WIKIPEDIA: Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_D%27Arcy_McGee>
WIKIPEDIA: 2012 Montreal shooting. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc.
Montgomery, Sue. “Shooting suspect Richard Henry Bain arraigned on 16 charges, including first-degree murder” Montreal Gazette 6 September 2012 <http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Shooting+suspect+Richard+Henry+Bain+arraigned+charges+including+first+degree+murder/7200523/story.html>