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Argo And Hollywood October 5, 2012

Posted by Alichat in Life, Movies, Politics, Random.
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Say what you will about Ben Affleck’s acting (admit it, for a long time he was second banana to Matt Damon,) the man is a damn fine director.  And, it would seem, he’s a better actor when he’s directing himself. His latest movie, Argo, is another example of this.  The unbelievable true story of the rescue of 6 Americans hiding in Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979.   Known now as the ‘Canadian Caper,’ all the classified documentation was released by President Clinton in 1997.  A chapter in a memoir, a few articles later, and it’s now a major motion picture.

In November 1979, Iranian students and militants loyal to Khomeini organized a take over of the US Embassy in Tehran.  As the protesters began to storm the building, six diplomats exited out of the back door of the Consulate, the only door leading directly to the street.  The escapees, Bob Anders (Tate Donovan,) Henry Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane,) Mark & Cora Lijek (Christopher Denham & Clea Duvall,) and Joe & Kathy Stafford (Scoot McNair & Kerry Bishé,) make their way to the home of the Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber,) who took them in and sheltered them.  Two months later, with 52 hostages being held at the Embassy, and militia groups storming neighborhoods searching for Shah and American sympathizers, the CIA calls in one of its best extraction officers, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck.)  Mendez was first brought in to consult, but is then given the task of devising a plan to get the 6 trapped diplomats out of Iran.  He concocts an idea to pass them off as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a new Hollywood movie, walk them right through customs and security, and fly them out of Iran. Argo is the movie. Sound too crazy to believe?  Well, as they say, the truth is stranger than fiction, and in this case, it was the fiction that became their truth.

Affleck does an amazing job of creating the world of 1979 US and Iran.  There’s a grittiness to the scenes that at times had me believing that the moments of the militants burning American flags, or the teams of protesters chanting ‘death to America’ were from archive footage.  However the pre-credit scenes demonstrate that these moments were very well crafted recreations. Hitting every detail from the offices of the CIA, to the streets of Tehran, the hair and makeup, and down to the pack of Pall Mall cigarettes Mendez smokes constantly, you are transported to 1979. A time of rotary phones instead of cell phones, and teletype messages instead of instant messages.  Speaking of hair and makeup, Rory Cochrane, pretty well known to audiences from CSI: Miami, is completely unrecognizable as Henry Lee Schatz.  It’s the mop top and the ‘stache…seriously!  The movie, a tense nail biter, uses a smart story board opening and narrative to explain what has led up to the current tensions in Tehran.  It’s a unique way to open a film about a true story where a fake film was used to save the lives of 6 people. Included in the film are several moments where we flash to the status of the 52 hostages in the Embassy, witnessing the chaos and torture they endured. These scenes, used to heighten the fear and tension of the time, also demonstrate the vastly different living conditions of those Americans left in Iran. Their captors claimed they were being treated kindly, as guests, which we know was not the case. The film is lightened by bursts of self deprecating humor mostly coming from the mouth of the great Alan Arkin.  Arkin, as Hollywood producer Lester Siegel, shoots off zingers with John Goodman, as Oscar winning special effects master John Chambers.  (Remember Planet Of the Apes…Spock’s ears….Mission Impossible….Lost In Space….yep he did that!)  The remaining cast is perfectly put together with Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss at the CIA, Kyle Chandler as Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordon, Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Phillip Baker Hall, and Chris Messina.

As with any real life situation becoming a film, Hollywood has taken liberties with the story.  Chris Terrio’s screenplay, based upon the 2007 Wired article by Joshuah Bearman, has consolidated a few facts, added a few scenes for dramatic purposes, and tweaked some dialogue.  Mendez is shown to have one child, instead of the three he did have. Although, he understood and asked that the one child included in the story be his son Ian, who passed from cancer in 2010. There is a dedication to Ian in the credits. While the addition of some new scenes help the film as they have you white knuckling the arm of your chair, Canada’s involvement in this mission is downplayed some, and that’s a shame.  Most of what Canada contributed is revealed here and there in lightening fast dialogue.  After the Argo showing at the Toronto International Film Festival, that was the biggest critism of the film. Canada contributed greatly, not only in hiding the diplomats, but also by providing ‘real fakes’ or genuine passports with the aliases.  This act, prohibited by Canadian law, was accomplished through an emergency secret session of parliament, apparently the first they’d held since World War II. Go Canada!!  Affleck agreed with the critics and altered the post text on the film. Regardless of the alterations, the movie is still a compelling and tense thriller.  If you’re a viewer who reads the book before seeing the movie and has no problems with the artistic liberties taken with a story, then check out the article. If not, don’t read the article until after you see the film!  Either way, you should definitely see this film!

Small postscript – Next time you are in DC, check out the International Spy Museum. Some of the items John Chambers contributed to the spy world are displayed.  Tony Mendez and his wife are on the Advisory Board.

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