– By Sulaiman D.
Quick, name me three things about the Seventies. Uhh, Richard Nixon? Bell-bottom pants? Starsky and Hutch? I don’t know man.
There’s a reason for this. If the decades of the Twentieth Century were guests at your party, the Seventies would be the unpopular kid no one really likes. You got your dapper Twenties, your war hero Forties, your hippie Sixties and the slick-suited Eighties. The Seventies? A byword for economic downturns, violence in the Middle East, government corruption (“I am not a crook!”) and some of the worst fashions and hairstyles known to man.
But amongst the mundane and the malaise, there were a few bright spots. Argo, the latest movie from budding director Ben Affleck, tells the story of one of them.
It’s amusing that Ben Affleck has earned the respect of audiences and critics alike as a director when he was widely disliked as an actor and bombed in movies like Gigli and Daredevil. All three films that he’s directed have been critically acclaimed, financially successful, and are political thrillers. Argo doesn’t break the streak.
How many of us Millenials really know much about the Iranian Revolution of the Seventies? It’s little more than a footnote, perhaps a chapter in a history book, but considering the political instability in modern Iran and the very real threat of a war there in our lifetimes, a little more knowledge couldn’t hurt.
Argo is based on the ‘true’ story of how one CIA agent managed to smuggle six US diplomats out of Tehran after the attack on the US Embassy, by creating a fake movie. But if you can overlook the inherent Inception-ness of watching a movie about a movie, there’s some pretty good political thriller stuff in it.
The film opens with a series of stylized, comic-book illustrations explaining the basics of the Iranian Revolution. A somber female voiceover explainins how the United States and Britain overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Moussadegh after he stopped selling them oil and inserted their puppet, the Shah Reza in his place. The Shah gets a bit of a villain upgrade here, as the voiceover emphasizes his ‘secret police’ and a Queen who bathes in milk while neglecting to mention that Reza actually tried to modernise his country, by letting women vote for instance.
It’s a clumsy way to ‘balance’ the movie as Affleck is clearly trying to paint some shades of grey in there and let us know that the Iranians had a good reason to rise up in rebellion. Seeing as how evil the Iranians are portrayed for the rest of the film (with one exception), it probably works out in the end, although it’s still kind of a cop out.
The attack on the embassy itself is terrifically portrayed, with some clear inspiration from modern zombie movies on how powerless the US ambassadors and even the soldiers on guard are to prevent the human tide of revolutionaries from pouring in. The attack turns into a full blown international crisis, but in the chaos six Americans manage to slip away and hide in the house of the Canadian ambassador. But they’re stuck with nowhere to go, and the CIA holds the key to their freedom.
The movie is unique in portraying the CIA as a definite force for good, not as the shadowy bunch of amoral sociopaths Hollywood likes to paint them. Bryan Cranston, enjoying a surge of popularity after his role in Breaking Bad (and well deserved) plays the superior of Tony Mendez, an exfiltration specialist played by Affleck himself.
Mendez objects to the Agency’s tried-and-tested methods of creating cover identities for the refugees as teachers or farm inspectors, and proposes getting them out through the heavily guarded Tehran Airport itself, posing as the film crew for the non-existent Argo.
There’s a nice bit of levity thrown in as Affleck halts the political stuff to take jabs at the movie industry itself, commenting on how bullshit is an essential part of the whole process. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are likeable as the two old Hollywood guys who help Mendez put the whole shebang together, and they have some of the most memorable lines.
Perhaps the most powerful scene in the film comes just before Mendez flies to Tehran, where he attends a press event to drum up publicity for his fake movie. As Z-list actors in ridiculous sci-fi costumes read out their fake script, it is intercut with scenes in the American embassy, where some hostages are made to believe that they will be executed. The raw anguish and despair of the hostages in a dark basement with a gun muzzle pressed to their heads throws the bright lights and glitz of Hollywood into sharp relief. It’s an effective reminder that while the CIA might be treating the whole thing as a bit of a joke, people’s lives are at stake.
The meat of the movie is of course in Iran itself, as Mendez walks into the lion’s den and rescues the diplomats from their living nightmare. I won’t spoil it for you, but there are some genuinely nail-biting and intense moments, and when the hostages finally escape (as they must do) I really felt a palpable sense of relief that they made it.
Argo intentionally has a grainy, faded look, meant to embody people’s memories of shows from the Seventies. It’s the little things that really help to push the idea that this isn’t just another spy flick, it really happened.
The yellow ribbons tied around trees and fences. The way people smoke everywhere, even in offices. The big square glasses, the multitude of moustaches (more facial hair in this movie than in Braveheart) and the gold chains. On the TVs and radios, it was a shock to see a young Tom Brokaw (I thought Brokaw came into the world already old) announce the rise of the Ayatollah, hear the soft Georgian accent of President Jimmy Carter and see a picture of Walter Mondale hung up on the walls of government offices. Affleck has worked hard to make this movie a period piece, and it shows.
The cast is a delight, with lots of familiar faces around. When Heisenberg is a CIA official, Sydney Bristow’s dad is the Canadian ambassador and Fred Flintstone is your makeup expert, there’s a lot of double takes. Thankfully it doesn’t overshadow the main plot.
Some viewers might feel that Argo lacks the action-packed sequences of other thriller films. Tony Mendez is no Bond or Bourne, in fact he doesn’t throw a punch throughout the entire film. He doesn’t have to. Affleck sticks to grounding the film in reality, and the movie benefits as a result.
I did however have a problem with a throwaway line near the start of the film, when the CIA states that both the British and the New Zealand diplomats turned away the refugees when they needed help. It seemed a bit unbelievable that America’s allies were not willing to help, and a quick check reveals that they did provide help and support.
Affleck acknowledges his decision, claiming he wanted to create the feeling that the refugees were trapped and had nowhere else to turn. It’s another bit of historical accuracy that gets sacrificed for the sake of drama, although it does result in a pretty funny bit near the end where the Canadians take full credit for the operation and the American public feel a renewed love for their little brother up North.
Argo is a great thriller, and you don’t really need to be a huge US history/politics geek like I am to fully appreciate it. Affleck can safely say that he’s directed a hat-trick of good movies with its release.