O Lord my God, in you I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me,
or like a lion they will tear me apart;
they will drag me away, with no one to rescue.
O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands, if I have repaid my ally with harm or plundered my foe without cause, then let the enemy pursue and overtake me, trample my life to the ground, and lay my soul in the dust.
Judging by the enthusiastic reaction at the screening I attended with a friend, Ben Affleck’s new film, set in Tehran in 1979, will be a solid hit, and possibly an Oscar contender as well. Argo is one of those truth is stranger than fiction tales that are “inspired by a real story.” When the Iranian mobs, angry for a long string of offenses against them committed by the US government (the latest being giving sanctuary to their deposed Shah whom they want to put on trial), storm the US Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, most of the staff frantically burn and shred their secret files and correspondence. However, six of the diplomats work in a different building with access to a back street, so they sneak out and manage to make it to the residence of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), where they are taken in and hidden while all hell rages outside.
In Washington the State Department learns of the escape of the six. While their main concern is for the negotiations for the release of the 52 actual hostages, they convene a team to discuss what to do about the 6. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is brought in from CIA as a consultant because he has recently extracted several members of the Shah’s staff. None of them at the initial meeting can think of a practical way to bring out the hostages. Then Tony is inspired while watching on TV The Battle for the Planet of the Apes. He knows the Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who had worked on the film. With his help he can set up a fake film team from Canada who go to Iran to scout locations for a sci-fi film. The State department can set up fake Ids; he can enter the country as the producer; and he can leave with the 6 diplomats pretending to be his film crew.
This sounds ludicrous, and the others, including Tony’s friend and CIA superior Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), are very sceptical, and yet no one can think of anything else. They all agree that it is “the best bad idea.” The next section of the film, set in Hollywood, is played for laughs. There can be no doubt that Tony’s friend John Chambers and the latter’s associate, Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), have the best lines, poking fun at Hollywood pretension. After overcoming their initial disbelief in such a preposterous project, they agree and plunge into a pile of wannabe scripts. It is Tony who discovers Argo, a Star Wars knock-off about a Middle Eastern princess and an alien villain.
Siegel and Chambers lay the groundwork, hiring actors, commissioning posters and story boards, even staging a reading by the costumed actors before an audience of the press in a fancy hotel, thus insuring that there will be an article in Variety, along with their fake ad. They even print up business cards with a phone number that will connect to a phone in a small office at the Hollywood studio where Lester works. The latter states, “If I am going to be making a fake movie, I want to have a fake hit,” The mood appropriately turns serious and tense when Tony flies into Tehran with the fake passports for the fugitives and a bundle of scripts and film materials. The six Americans are a lot harder to convince than his superiors at State and the CIA. From a number of intercut sequences we have seen their growing fear and despair that they will emerge alive from their ordeal. One of them asks Tony why should they trust him, a stranger, and he replies, “This is what I do,” and that he has never left anyone behind. They are especially daunted by the prospect of, in just two or three days, learning all the information about their made-up identities and the minutia concerning Argus and their roles in its making. Tony has to call upon all his skills as an operative to convince them that they will be bale to perform well. The Canadians are planning to close their embassy in a few days, so it becomes clear that they have no other choice.
The suspense is heightened by the fact that at the American Embassy the militants have recruited dozens of women and children to take the long, string-like strands of shredded papers and piece them back together so that they will have reconstructed pictures of every Embassy employee. The militants are fairly certain that there were more than the 52 hostages that they now hold. Day by day, we see, the strings of paper are sorted and matched, the pictures of the six fugitives slowly emerging. Still another factor of suspense is our wondering what the Taylors’ housekeeper Sahar (Sheila Vand) will do about her suspicion that the six guests are Americans in hiding. When the militants come calling at the house, will she tell them of her hunch or not?
The climax at the airport includes the hair-breadth escape that my companion observed was probably more of a close call than the real one, given filmmakers’ penchant for increasing the dramatic effect of their stories. Whatever the exagerations here or elsewhere, the film is a fine testimony to the courage of all concerned, including that of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and his wife. The British Embassy staff had refused sanctuary to the Americans due to the extreme risk, but our “neighbours to the North” proved to be good neighbors indeed. When the story broke there was no mention made of the CIA’s involvement. Only 16 years later, when the file was declassified by Pres. Bill Clinton, was the role of the CIA and their bizarre fake Hollywood movie revealed. As the end credits roll we hear the specially made recording of former Pres. Jimmy Carter giving a few details of the scheme.
Not stated in the film, but nonetheless implied by the short historical montage that opens it, is the important lesson that our nation pays a price for supporting ruthless dictators because they are willing to aid us in our fight with a greater enemy, in the 1970s this being the Soviet Union. Using news clips and cartoons, the prelude depicts in quick succession the following events: the Iranian people electing Prime minister Mohammad Mossaddegh; then, when he nationalized the oil industry, our CIA and the British engineering his overthrow, and our full support of the Shah, despite the cruel treatment of dissidents by his secret police; the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, the anti-American demonstrations when we allowed the Shah and his family to come to America; and our rejection of their demands that he be sent back to stand trial for crimes against his people.
Note: Some of the characters frequently use the “F” word, so discussion leaders should forewarn participants of this.
1. Compare this real life thriller to such synthetic thrillers as the Bourne movies or the Mission Impossible fairy tales. How is this one, despite all the lack of fake fights, tumbles and falls from great heights, just as bizarre in its own way? (And yet how at the end on the airport runway do the filmmakers give in to the desire for excitement?)
2. How did you feel during the many mob scenes when the American flag was being defiled? What was it
that fueled the Iranians’ extreme hatred of America?
3. Do you agree with those who regard Islam as a hate religion espousing violence, or do you think that our Middle East policies and past acts provide some grounds for Islamists’ anti-Americanism? Upon what do you base your opinion?
4. How might the events of 1979 color the way that Iranian and American leaders regard and deal with each other today? How is fear a major factor for leaders of Iran, Israel, and the US?
5. How is courage perhaps a key theme of this film?
6. Often the CIA, or its rogue agents, has been the villain with a lone hero struggling against it: how did you feel to see it depicted this time as a force for good?