By Rhea Kumar:
Production year: 2012;
Run time: 120 mins;
Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Alan Arkin, Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Christopher Denham, Clea DuVall, John Goodman, Kerry Bishe, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Tate Donovan, Victor Garber
On January 28, 1980, six American diplomats caught a flight from Tehran, Iran to Zurich, Switzerland. Nothing out of the ordinary, is there? Here’s the catch: the Americans carried Canadian passports and posed as a Canadian film crew on a location scout for a science fiction film called ‘Argo’. As a result, they managed to escape some of the most violent anti-America demonstrations in Iran.
‘Argo’ is the story of these six Americans and of Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who helped them escape. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing in February 2013, trouncing several other close contenders. Significantly, `Argo’ became only the 4th film in the 85 year history of the Academy Awards to win Best Picture without a nomination in the Best Director category.
This story would probably have been the plot of Mission Impossible 5 if it wasn’t based on real life incidents. In November 1979, a mob of pro-Ayotollah Iranian students attacked the US embassy in Tehran in protest against the US providing refuge and medical treatment to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last king of Iran who was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution of February 1979. The irate mob captured and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, subjecting them to gruesome torture and stopping just short of killing them.
The movie begins with an enraged mob storming the US embassy, shouting violent anti-American slogans. As they capture the embassy, six American diplomats in the consular office manage to escape through a side exit and find their way to the house of the Canadian ambassador. That is their shelter for the next two months, where they stay without the knowledge of the Iranians, protected from the torture that their fellow countrymen are subject to.
It is only when the Iranians begin recovering a database of the embassy employees that American authorities realise the severe threat to these six diplomats. It is clear that they are no longer safe in Iran and need an escape plan. This is where Tony Mendez, a CIA exfiltration specialist comes into the picture.
While watching `Planet of the Apes’, Tony hits upon the most bizarre rescue plan, one that is received with initial scepticism and disbelief but ultimately acknowledged by CIA supervisor Jack O Donnell as “the best bad idea we have.” Tony’s adventures take him to Los Angeles, where he meets John Chambers, a make-up artist who has worked with the CIA and Lester Siegel, a film producer. Together they set up a phony production company, studio and even organize a script reading of the movie. The free spirited and colourful scenes in Hollywood are in contrast with the tense environment back in the CIA offices in Washington and provide a brief breather in an otherwise intense movie with edge-of-the-seat suspense. Alan Arkin in his role as the witty and blunt Lester Siegel is at his best.
Tony then departs on the riskiest mission of his life to the violent streets of Tehran, under the codename of Kevin Harkins and with the motto, “Argo f*** yourself.” Initially, the six Americans react as aversely to his plan as the officials back in the United States but they have little to choose between. As the `crew’ prepare for their assigned roles, the tension quotient in the film builds up rapidly. Several tense scenes follow: including a confrontation at the bazaar when the ‘film crew’ is required to meet a representative from the Iranian Ministry of Culture and another where the Iranian maid of the Canadian ambassador nearly gives the Americans away. The climax is at the Tehran airport where the Americans are rigorously interrogated by Iranian airport authorities. Ultimately, it is a bunch of sci-fi sketches and a film script that saves the seven of them from a bloody end. Tony is awarded an Intelligence Star, which, ironically, he doesn’t get to show off since the mission was top secret until Bill Clinton declassified it in 1997. The film ends with Tony going back to his wife and son.
The movie doesn’t have scintillating action scenes or juicy hot scenes (except a brief topless view of Ben Affleck). But what sets it apart is the bizarreness of the entire mission, the fascinating build up to the climax, and the fact, that, despite all odds, it worked. At certain points in the film, everything seems to be going wrong, yet in the end, the seven of them manage to escape unscathed. So much so that one may begin to think that the entire story is made up. After all, how can seven people disguised as a film crew escape from a country when the entire state machinery and every single official is out to get them? The answer lies in the minute and detailed planning of the operation: giving each of the seven Americans a new identity, writing a script, sketches of the screenplay, setting up an office, getting a real life producer on board and so on. These were measures that enhanced the cover story and made it believable to outsiders. At its core, the film remains a tribute to Mendez, the mastermind behind the operation. Tony Mendez transformed Argo from a covert CIA operation to a living, breathing science fiction film on the scale of Star Wars. He made a story that would otherwise sound far-fetched and ridiculous, extremely believable, not only to the Iranians at the airport, but also to the millions of others who have watched his story on the silver screen.
One has to commend Ben Affleck for his triple role as actor, director and producer. The numerous accolades that the film has won are well in order and speak volumes of Affleck’s mettle. As a thriller drama, the film has naturally departed from reality in places to adapt for the audiences. For instance, the long gut wrenching scene at the airport when the seven of them are questioned is pure fiction. In reality, the journey proceeded smoothly and the Iranians only got to realize their blunder a couple of days later.
On the downside, the film may be accused of a lopsided focus on the American point of view. The Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor took great personal risk by keeping the six diplomats in his home. The Canadian authorities also played a major role in the issuance of passports and documentation to Mendez and the other six, something that the film hasn’t focussed on. Perhaps to make up for this lacuna, the film ends with a line acknowledging the episode as a “model for international co-operation between governments to this date”. Again, one could argue that the portrayal of the Iranians as the ‘bad guys’, vile, evil and absolutely bull-headed is rather simplistic and unfair, while the Americans are expectedly portrayed as the courageous upholders of true justice. That’s American soft power at its best!