“The Best Bad Idea – By Far”

A few months into the Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-81), there was one bright ray of sunlight during that very dark time.  Six American Embassy workers were spirited out of Tehran after hiding out with the Canadian ambassador since the embassy takeover.  The full story of how they made their escape was kept classified until 1997 when President Clinton opened the files.  It was revealed to have been a CIA extraction that got the Americans out, posing as a Canadian movie production team.

Obviously, this was the perfect plot for a movie.  On the strength of his first two directing projects, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Warner Brothers offered the script to Ben Affleck.  It was an inspired choice.  Affleck not only beautifully recreates the milieu of the United States in1979-80, he has also made a rare treat: an intelligent thriller to rival movies from that time like Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men and Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon.

The movie begins with a primer on Iranian history, explaining how in the 1950’s the American and British intelligence agencies ousted the democratically-elected government of Iran to protect oil interests.  Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was installed as the Shah.  He was known for his excesses, such as having meals flown in from Paris on the Concorde, and those excesses extended to keeping power by any means.  His secret police, the Savak, were experts at torture.  But it couldn’t keep him in power forever, and so in early 1979 the Shah, dying from cancer, went into exile.  The radical cleric Ayatollah Khomeini returned from his own exile in France and the Islamic Republic of Iran was created.  In the fall of the year President Carter allowed the Shah entrance to the US for cancer treatments.  Protests erupted in Tehran outside the embassy, demanding that the Shah be returned to stand trial for his crimes.  The protests continue for days outside the padlocked gates of the embassy until, like a tsunami, the crowd rose and attacked.

Affleck recreates the day of the takeover in stunning detail.  During the credits, stills from the scenes are put up beside actual news photographs from that time, and they are pretty much identical.  On the far side of the compound, with the only easy exit point, was the Embassy’s visa office.  As the protestors storm the Embassy itself, the six staff members in the office, including two married couples, debate what to do.  Eventually they abandon the embassy and seek shelter with other consular staffs.  A couple of countries turn them away before the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) offers them sanctuary.  They stay hidden for over two months, but the situation becomes untenable as well as physically dangerous.  Most of the documents in the US embassy were shredded, but the Iranians have set about painstakingly reassembling the pages.  It’s only a question of time before they realize there are six Americans unaccounted for and they begin tearing the city apart looking for them.

Tony Mendez (Affleck) is a CIA exfiltration expert.  He’s called in by his boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) because the State Department, who’ve taken command of the hostage crisis, wants an opinion on their idea of how to get the six out of Iran.  Mendez shoots down their idea, which consisted of smuggling in six bicycles and a map.  Other suggestions are just as impractical, given the situation in Iran.  That night he shares some long-distance time with his son, who’s living with Mendez’s estranged wife.  They talk on the phone while watching one of the Planet of the Apes sequels.  As he watches the movie, the proverbial light bulb turns on over Mendez’s head.  He could get the six out by having them pretend to be a team scouting locations for a movie.

With O’Donnell’s approval, Mendez flies to California and seeks out makeup expert John Chambers (John Goodman), who had won an Oscar for his work on the original Planet of the Apes and who is also a CIA operative.  Chambers explains that to make it work, they’d need a real producer attached to the project.  Chambers introduces Mendez to Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who agrees to serve as producer for the fake film, but they will need a real script to carry off the scam.  They read through dozens and dozens before they come across a sci-fi adventure that’s set in a Middle-Eastern sort of world.  The title of the script is “Argo.”

Some interesting trivia:

  • While it’s not mentioned in the movie, the script was based on a 1967 book by sci-fi author Roger Zelazny called “Lord of Light.”
  • In Argo, Mendez shows storyboards to the Iranians to explain what the movie would look like.  Those story boards actually existed, and were done by comic book legend Jack Kirby, who co-created Captain America and many of the other Marvel heroes.
  • The production needed to have an office in Hollywood while the operation was happening, in case the Iranians checked.  They ended up moving into offices at Columbia that had just been vacated by Michael Douglas, who’d used them for his production of The China Syndrome.
  • Alan Arkin’s Lester Siegel is one of the few made-up characters in the movie.  In real life, Chambers recruited another makeup man, Bob Sidell, to act as the producer.  But Lester lets the movie poke a little fun at Hollywood.
  • When Mendez comes to California, there’s a shot of the Hollywood sign in ruin.  While it’s a good visual for Hollywood at that time, it’s historically incorrect.  The sign was fully restored in 1978, a year before Argo takes place..

Affleck has filled his film with fine character actors, including Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Clea DuVall, Bob Gunton, Richard Kind, Michael Parks, and Tate Donovan.  The makeup and hair styling deserves an Oscar for making the actors convincingly resemble the real people they’re playing.  Chandler is a dead ringer for Carter Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan.  When Affleck did the Jack Ryan reboot, The Sum Of All Fears, he’d made friends with people in the CIA.  He used those contacts to get permission to film on location at the CIA Headquarters in McLean, VA.  It adds immeasurably to the reality of the film.

Working from a script by Chris Terrios, based on an article in Wired Magazine by Joshuah Bearman, Affleck keeps the tension ratcheted way up all the way through the film.  When it comes to the climatic escape, don’t be surprised if you feel pain in your chest.  That’s because you’re afraid to breathe, in case it causes the characters on the screen to be captured.

This is one of the best thrillers in recent history, as tense as any of the Jason Bourne or Die Hard film, yet there are no explosions and very little gunplay.  Kudos to Affleck and everyone involved for making Argo such a fine, satisfying film.

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