Saturday, February 9, 2013

Oscars 2013: Argo

Argo (U.S., 2012) directed by Ben Affleck, 120 minutes
Nominated for Seven Oscars
Best Picture
Best Actor is a Supporting Role
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Adapted Screenplay 

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 is but a dim memory for me and I had no knowledge of the true back story behind the escape of the six American Embassy workers hidden in the Canadian embassy with the assistance of Ambassador Ken Taylor (here portrayed by 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 (here 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 (played by the excellent Allan Arkin) and a master make up artist John Chambers (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 production process. 

The tension of this 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 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 Ambasador 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 (those of Persian heritage may not agree but I thought it was fairly evenly done): 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. 

The post-script in the film originally offered short shrift to Taylor's efforts but Affleck moved very quickly to amend that post-script and to publicly acknowledge Taylor's role. 

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. 

Ken Taylor, one of the heroes of the hostage crisis

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