was a time of malaise. In 1979, the
iconic Hollywood sign had fallen into a state of disrepair, but there was still
a patriotic old guard willing to invest their time and reputations in a film
that would never be made, for the sake of their country. Recruited by CIA “exfiltration” specialist
Tony Mendez, two movie industry veterans provided the cover for a long
classified rescue operation. During the
Iranian hostage crisis, the Canadian ambassador furtively sheltered six U.S.
embassy employees, at considerable personal risk. Mendez devised a plan to fly them out in
broad daylight, posing as crew members of a Star
Wars knock-off. Their stranger-than-fiction
mission has become Ben Affleck’s Oscar contending Argo (trailer
opens today in New York.
its opening voiceover narration, Argo makes
it clear everything that happened in Iran was the fault of America and Great
Britain, because we supported the Shah.
After we are properly chastised, Argo
then admits the early days of the Islamic Revolutionary regime were little
more than a reign of terror, culminating with the seizure of the American embassy,
in gross violation of international law.
Carefully modeled on actual news footage, these occupation sequences are
a harrowing depiction of mass fanaticism at its most savage, but also highly
flat-footed, the Carter Administration (which had pressured the Shah to abdicate,
assuming the Ayatollah would mellow once entrusted with power) is at a total
loss. The Canadian Ambassador simply cannot
shelter his “house guests” indefinitely and it is only a matter of time before
the hostage takers realize they are short six Foreign Service Officers. Most of the proposed action plans bear little
or no relation to the on-the-ground realities.
Of course, Mendez does not have any better ideas, until he thinks of make-up
artist John Chambers, the man who created Spock’s ears, who secretly volunteers
his “transformative” services to the CIA.
plan is daring in its conception. Mendez
will enter Iran via Canada on the pretext that he is scouting locations for a sci-fi
epic set on a rather Persian looking alien world. A few days later, he simply flies out again
with six of his crew members. Of course,
it is rather more complicated than that.
To be credible, Argo, as the
non-film within the film is titled, must have legit names attached to it and generate
some trade press. Old school producer
Lester Siegel can take care of that.
Argo really packs a
punch when conveying the overwhelming oppressiveness and paranoia of
Revolutionary Iran. The atmosphere is
truly overpowering and profoundly scary.
Yet, Affleck effectively breaks up the mood with the Sorkinesque
absurdities of the Carter Administration and the outright comic relief provided
by Siegel and Chambers. However, their “kvetching
for freedom” never feels overly silly or forced. Instead, viewers clearly understand these old
cats are used to dealing with serious situations through humor.
Mendez, Ben Affleck broods and bluffs convincingly enough, but his work on the
other side of the camera far more distinctive.
John Goodman and Alan Arkin are absolutely perfect as the real life
Chambers and the composite-figure Siegel.
They both deliver zingers like the old pros they are, while still
projecting an unabashed love of country that is quite endearing. Yet, Bryan Cranston gets some of the film’s
sharpest lines as Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s superior at the Agency.
Aside from the audio from a ridiculously self-serving
interview with Jimmy Carter heard during the closing credits, the sure-footed Affleck
avoids politicizing his tight narrative.
He keeps the tension cranked up, but has the good sense to unleash his
colorful supporting cast. Given the
presumed field of Oscar candidates, it probably deserves to be in the mix. Recommended for those fascinated with the
history of espionage, Argo opens
today (10/12) in theaters throughout the City, including the AMC Loews Lincoln
Labels: Ben Affleck, Iran Hostage Crisis, John Chambers, John Goodman