The historical drama has been a popular genre for many decades, practically from the beginning of movies as a primary media for entertainment. Great moments in history, iconic individuals and pivotal circumstances that altered our society has been fodder for the filmmaker and rightfully so. The art of cinema ushered in a significant paradigm shift in our history is transmitted from the verbal stories handed down and the written word to the visual medium of film. It must be clearly noted that while the movie version of historical figures and events are frequently quite exciting they are also rather prone to inaccuracies. In this age of the internet with chat boards and Wikipedia there are literally millions of fact checkers ready, willing and able to point out the deviations from reality. There has always been a certain degree of dramatic license infused into historical accounts; after all history is written by the victors. At least now there are numerous avenues for people viewing the movie to investigate different renditions. Naturally films of this sort exist in a broad range of quality; some mediocre or even out right bay while some move on to take their place among the best films of their time. The film under consideration here is thankfully in the latter category, ‘Argo’. As evidence of this claim it should be noted that it has received AFI Movie of the year along with the zenith of movie accolades the Academy Award for Best Screenplay from previously published mater and the highly coveted Best Motion Picture of the Year. The plot of the film is based an example of recent history that definitely falls under the heading; ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. Certainly, there are numerous embellishments that are easy to track down but what is important is the film managed to capture the essence of the events. During a crisis where American citizens were held hostage by a hostile regime a mission was mounted to rescue the people using an ersatz movie production as a cover. This might sound like an episode of the classic television series ‘Mission: Impossible’ but it is firmly and expertly crafted on real events.
1979 was a transitional year in American politics. Jimmy Carter was about to conclude his single term as President of the United States relinquishing his office to Ronald Reagan. Political pundits had already decreed the Carter presidency has uneventful and mediocre. In the twilight of his term something would happen that would become a significant chapter in American foreign policy. On November 4th of that year an extremist faction executed a military action invading the American embassy in Tehran, Iran. Over four dozen of the embassy staff was captured, taken hostage by the heavily armed zealots. Miraculously six of the hostages managed to break away and flee. They made their way to the residence of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). This situation initiated a cascade of activity in the international intelligence community especial the analysts and tactical planers of the Central Intelligence Agency. They had to quickly devise and set in motion a mission to extricate the half dozen without compromising the safety of the almost fifty other staff hostages.
The CIA’s resident expert on covert extraction missions, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), is tasked with constructing a means to accomplish the delicate constraints of the circumstances. Along with his immediate supervisor, CIA director Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), Mendez concocts an elaborate plan that includes a cover story to protect the planed military intervention to save the bulk of the hostages. Together they contact John Chambers (John Goodman), a special effects makeup artist who previously plied his craft for other CIA operations. He puts the espionage specialists in touch with movie producer r Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). This unlikely cadre came up with plan to weave a cover story based on the production of a fake science fiction film, ‘Argo’. Under the pretense of being Canadian filmmaker scouting locations in Iran the CIA operatives would gain understandably natural access to their country’s Ambassador and the hospitality of his official residence. This would provide the requisite contact with the six hostages and a cover to extricate them from the residence. On January 20, 1980 the day that Ronald Regan was to take the oath of office just as the remainder of the hostages was released, the historical irony of that day was as an actor Mr. Regan typically had to share billing, once with a chimpanzee. Now, on the most important day of his life the fortieth President of the United States had to once again share the spotlight.
Usually the ‘film within a film’ motif is employed in order to poke fun at the movie industry itself, liberally peppered with inside jokes and outright barbs targeting the people responsible for the movie we watch. While there are a good number of such quips found here the primary function of the technique lays in the very reason the deception worked in the first place. People have the tendency to readily acquiesce to a movie company. What is genuinely surprising about this subterfuge is despite the open animosity held by a considerable portion of the local population the mention of a film studio and access transcends suspicion. This reinforces the entire ‘Mission: Impossible feel to the gimmick.
Ultimately the plot was successful both in retrieving the six and not adversely affecting the release of the majority of hostages mostly because of the expertise and imagination of the professional behind the mission. This is also the reason why the film made about it, ‘Argo’ succeeded to such an incredible degree; the talent instilled in every aspect of this film was exceptional. This all starts with the most fundamental element of most films, the script. The Oscar winning screenplay by Chris Terrio was sourced by the article Joshuah Bearman wrote for the technocentric magazine, ‘Wired’, aptly titled; "Escape from Tehran: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran." What is unusual here is there is only a modicum of definition given to the six hostages at the center of the story; Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane), Mark and Cora Lijek (Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall), and Joe and Kathy Stafford (Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe). What the director and star of the movie, Ben Affleck, does is utilize these people as a type of Macguffin, critical within the film but of minimal actual concern to the audience. This was a bold move that turned out to be a brilliant choice. Affleck’s sense of pacing is impeccable; initiating the movie with a reenactment of the embassy take over worthy of an action movie to the suspenseful buildup leading up to a final act that will have your attention riveted to the screen. Amazingly despite the action promised in the opening there is no need for the usual tropes of car chases, shoot outs or explosions. This is more of a psychological thriller ideally blended with deliciously tongue in cheek humor. This is some fashion reminded me of ‘Leverage’, a television series about a group of con men. The focus here is the audacity of the con game the CIA pulled on the hostage takers. The movie grabs you and doesn’t let go; not that you would want it to.
Picture In Picture: Eyewitness Account