Wednesday, September 12, 2012

TIFF 2012: Argo

Affleck as Mendez
Argo (U.S., 2012) directed by Ben Affleck, 120 minutes
Wednesday, September 12, 2012, Scotiabank 1, 9.30am

I was completely taken in by Argo much to my surprise. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been as I thoroughly enjoyed Affleck’s last offering, the Oscar nominated The Town, from two years ago. The Iranian hostage situation in the late 1970s and early 1980s was but a dim memory for me and I had no knowledge of the true backstory behind the escape of the six American Embassy workers trapped in the Canadian embassy with the permission of Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). The story was officially declassified by President Clinton in 1997.

Some background on the events leading up to the crisis here. The film does a great job of providing a very short synopsis of Iranian history up until the crisis.

CIA agent and "exfiltration" expert Tony Mendez (a bearded and oddly attractive Ben Affleck) was sent in to find a method to get the six out of Iran. Rejecting a hare-brained government scheme that suggested six bicycles be smuggled into the embassy to have the four men and two women ride 300 miles to the next border, he came up with a possibly equally bizarre plan. It was an elaborate ruse to suggest that a Canadian film crew was shooting a sci-fi film entitled Argo in Iran and that the six were members of that film crew who had flown in for two days to scout the location and were flying back out. 

This involved the cooperation of an established Hollywood film producer Lester Siegel (the excellent Allan Arkin) and a master make up artist (John Goodman) to establish the credibility of the film: optioning an existing script, hiring actors, creating ads for industry publications in Hollywood, organizing a public reading of the script, securing the permission of the Iranian government and various officials. Affleck has a good time skewering the labyrinthine nature of Hollywood in the process. 

The tension of the ordeal is unbearable throughout the film and even when we know the outcome (the good guys win of course), the audience remains in a constant state of terror that the ruse will be discovered.

Affleck wisely shifts the story away from Mendez (himself) and focuses a great deal of attention on the six Embassy workers (named here) – their anxieties, fears and despair between accepting the plan and trying to remain in the embassy that will soon be overrun. But Ken Taylor has a sense that a household staff member has become suspicious about the presence of the Americans (he has told her that the six are Canadian friends from abroad). 

The filmed scenes are effectively interspersed with news footage from that time. The Iranians are portrayed in an evenhanded way without shrinking from the violence and terror of that time: the public beatings and hangings in the street, the spontaneous crowds of rioting citizens, the enormous hostility towards America for harboring the Shah of Iran, the daily betrayals of those suspected of not supporting the Ayatollah Khomeini. Ambassador Taylor is seen as compassionate and brave – taking in the Americans when several embassies turned them away at the door. 

There is a harrowing last scene at the airport with the group and Mendez barely escaping the wrath of the duped Iranians. As political thrillers go, they don’t get much better than this.

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